Once or twice r heard my father sing a few notes, but only to show that he couldn't. And I may have once heard my Uncle Tom do the same. My Aunt Belie married a man who loved music, the painter Randall Davey, who took up the cello in his fifties and became quite a good player. In his house in Santa Fe he often played classical records; he gave me my first recording of David Oistrakh, and introduced me to the music of Vivaldi.
My Uncle john married a woman who loved music and knew something about it, but I don't think much of this rubbed off on him or my cousins. My mother's family was somewhat more musical. Her parents were divorced before I was born. When we were very little we spent our summers near Grandfather Crocker.
I remember him as a very jovial and energetic man with beautiful cars and a big sailboat. From the age of seven or eight on, I saw very little of him. I have no musical memories of him; how musical he may have been, I just don't know. My sisters and I saw a great deal of Granny, and were very close to her during our growing up. She was a devout Episcopalian and went regularly to church on Sunday, taking us with her, which we half disliked and half enjoyed.
Like all little children we were bored in church, which made no sense and seemed to go on forever. But it was obviously a serious grown-up occasion, and it was an important part of our lives with Granny. Anyway, we knew that a wonderful Sunday lunch would follow, which kept us going. In church Granny, whose speaking voice was quite low, sang the hymns in a strong, clear, tremulous soprano. It embarrassed me terribly because it was so loud, and even more because it was so emotional. I felt sure that the whole church must be staring at us. Much later in life 1 would realize what marvelous songs those old hymns were, and even though I did not believe much of what they said, would enjoy singing them out.
Granny used to go to orchestra concerts from time to time with an old and dear friend, who had a box at Carnegie Hall. But I do not remember that she ever had any classical records, and can't recall ever hearing any classical music in her house, or, later, in her New York apartment.
Certainly music was not a big part of her life; she was more interested in books and theatre. But it was at least a part. My mother must have studied piano when she was young. My sister remembers her playing a few pieces, usually at parties. I only remember her playing one small fragment, but what I can recall of the way she played it suggests that when young she must have played fairly well. She had a very true and discerning ear. Late in her life, when she and my father moved to a retirement hotel in La Jolla, California, she began to go into San Diego quite regularly to concerts of both the San Diego Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
She sent me reviews of many of the concerts written by what she called "the crosspatch critic" of the San Diego paper, and usually added her own perceptive and witty comments. I looked forward to going to other concerts with her, and to sharing in other ways our mutual love of music, but soon after that she became very ill and died a few months later. Whatever musical interest or talent she may have had, she showed no signs of it during our growing up.
There was no music in our house. My sister and I discovered, in a garage or basement or somewhere, an old wind-up Victrola and some records of old songs which we used to play from time to time. But we never heard it played by anyone else. We had a radio, but my parents rarely listened to it, and almost never to any kind of music. I do have one odd fragment of memory of my mother hearing on the radio a brand-new singer named Bing Crosby, and saying that if he could just get the huskiness out of his voice he might be quite a success.
I never heard her sing or hum a tune. In our house we had a kind of mini-upright piano, with a keyboard of only sixty or seventy keys. Most of the time the only person who used it was my younger sister, who was made to take piano lessons and to practice. There was one tune in her practice book called "The Happy Farmer," which she played for what seemed like hours.
In time her reluctance, her lack of progress, and perhaps most of all "The Happy Farmer, wore my parents down and the lessons and practice stopped. Later, at school, she took up the bugle and played for a while in a drum-and-bugle corps. She had a natural lip and a powerful tone. Some years later, just after she was married, I went with her to a formal dance. During an intermission she asked the trumpet player in the band if she could try out his trumpet. He smiled indulgently and handed it over. She wiped off her lip stick, set her lips, took a deep breath, and blew a tremendous blast.
A more surprised man I never saw. My mother hardly ever touched the piano. I remember her playing only one piece. At college my father had been on the football team, had joined the best clubs, and all that. It had been a high point in his life. One of our family rituals was to go to several football games each fall, eating a picnic lunch before the game with my father's college classmates and their families. My mother, like all football wives, went along with this. Only many years later did I begin to sense or guess that like many other wives she may have felt all this football, cheering, and nostalgia was a lot of nonsense.
At any rate, once in a great while she would sit down at the tiny piano and play the first line or two of my father's college football song, the one the band played when the football team first appeared on the field. She played it in time and in tune, but somehow it sounded very different, and all wrong, in a way I could not quite put my finger on.
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One of the things she did was to arpeggiate the chords in the bass, playing the notes separately instead of together, which gave a somewhat tinkly effect. Hearing her now in my mind, I can see that she was making fun of the song, changing it from a stirring march into something that a teacher might play in a kindergarten or nursery school as the children marched around the room. Her mockery and wit were far too subtle for my father; hearing the start of the song that all his life, and like no other, made his heart beat faster and the blood surge in his veins, he would urge her to keep on playing.
No, she would say, that's enough. And that is all I ever heard her sing or play. I Can 't Carry a Tune My father used to say very often how much he loved music. I remember being told that when I was very small I could make him cry by singing "Londonderry Air. He used to say that he wished he could, as an amputee might say he wished he could have his missing arm or leg back. But, he would go on to say sadly, though he had tried his best, he had never been able to carry a tune. At college he had been the manager of the glee club, and had traveled with them and enjoyed their singing.
But he had never been able to take part. I can remember, perhaps two or three times during my growing up, hearing him try to sing a few notes. The occasion was always a party, with some of his old friends around. After everyone had had a few drinks and was feeling mellow, the subject might turn to music, and someone would suggest that my father sing them a tune. Come on, Harry, sing us some- thing!
NEVER TOO LATE : My musical life story | John Caldwell Holt | First Edition; First Printing
No, you know I can't sing. Sure you can, sure you can, don't be shy. No, I can't, I can't carry a tune. Oh come on, give it a try. As I think of it now, it seems very much like the little drama enacted every fall in the comic strip Peanuts, when Lucy tries once again to persuade Charlie Brown to place-kick a football which she offers to hold for him, promising this time not to pull it away at the last second as she has always done in years past.
Eventually, after much cajoling and reassuring, my father would be persuaded. What song shall I sing, I don't know any songs. In time, a song would be decided on.
Never Too Late: My Musical Life Story / John Holt / Da Capo Press [paperback]
The party would be summoned to silence, and my father would begin to sing. He was rarely able to get out more than four or five notes before the crowd would burst into roars of laughter. My father would stop, and with some mixture of embarrassment and pleasure loin in the laughter against himself. In one way, he may not have liked it; in another, it made him the center of attention, it was his parlor trick.
The idea that he could not sing was not just a part, but a treasured part, of his notion of himself. Many years later I would read, in a very important and little known book, Self-Consistency, by the unjustly neglected psychologist Prescott Lecky, that people cling to and protect their images of themselves even when these images contain faults, weaknesses, incapacities. Thus, in a study of Columbia University students who were poor spellers, he discovered to his great surprise that many of them, though they said they were ashamed of not being able to spell, were in fact in a strange way proud of it.
At any rate, they were more interested in defending their image of themselves as nonspellers than they were in learning how to spell. Years later I saw this in many children in school and called it the protective strategy of deliberate failure. It is easier to say, "I'm a nonspeller or a non- singer " than to face the risks and possible disappointments of learning to sing or spell. Every so often my mother used to tease my father about his singing. When she teased, it was not for fun; she meant it to hurt, and it usually did.
She was very perceptive, with a sure eye for other people's weaknesses and soft spots; she knew lust where to stick the needle to make it hurt most. In the case of my father's singing, she would refer now and then, with the light and mocking lilt she could put in her voice, to an obscure song called "All The Little Pansy Faces.
The results must not have been good. When she mentioned the pansy faces, his face made it clear that this was not a happy memory. I went along with my father's and everyone else's idea of him as a nonsinger. Not until many years after I was grown up did I get a hint that it might never have been true. Once again he was prevailed on to sing a song, and once again, after just a few words, he was stopped by everyone's laughter.
But this time he was singing a song I happened to know, and listening carefully I discovered to my surprise that he sang it quite well, that if not dead on the tune he was very close to it. He was in fact much less of a so-called monotone than a student of mine whom I later taught to sing well. All of which makes me wonder, at what point in his life, and in what way, did someone --a friend? This happens every year to tens of thousands of children, perhaps at home, more likely in school. The children are told to sing a song.
Some child does not get it quite right. Perhaps the other children laugh, or some child--I have known a few like this--says, "Teacher, he isn't singing it right," or the teacher himself points it out. Before long there is a suggestion made that when the class is singing, particularly before outsiders above all, parents , this child sing very softly. The child gets the idea. Something about his not being able to sing goes into his school record, so that later teachers will be alerted.
And so the story is passed on. My Grandfather 's Whistle The only other musical sound I can remember being made by anyone on my father's side of the family was a little tune that my grandfather used to whistle to himself. As he was about seventy when I was born, I knew him only as an old man.
But he was a sweet man, a lovely man, and his kindness and love and friendship were a great joy and comfort to me in my growing up. He was tall and very handsome, with white hair and moustache. He was born and brought up on a farm in Paris, in Bourbon County, Kentucky, and looked like a sort of idealized Southern gentleman in a whiskey ad, but wiser, stronger, and kinder. He would never have let himself be used for such a purpose.
He lived for much of his life, and all the time I knew him, in a big, rather ugly but lovely to me Victorian house in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They are not meant to suggest that he whistled his little tune strictly in tune, and always the same. The tune was faintly tuneless, and the melody would sometimes sag downwards a tone or so near the end. Sometimes, but by no means always, he would follow it with something like this--the notes, again, very approximate: musical notes How I loved the sound of that whistle, and love the memory of it! But it was the only tune or song I ever heard in all the years I was a happy visitor in that house.
First Concert When I was about eight or nine, my sisters and I all caught whooping cough. I caught it first, a fairly mild case. As I was recovering, they both came down with it and became very sick. Since the house was in a turmoil, I went for a few weeks to live with Granny in her New York apartment. While 1 was there a good friend of hers invited us to go to a concert of the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall.
I was eager to go, but though I was no longer sick or contagious, as an aftereffect of the disease I still had a persistent tickling cough. But Granny was determined to take me to the concert. She knew that since my parents never went to concerts, if I did not go with her I was not likely to go at all. She may have hoped that I would enjoy it, but in any case, and what was far more important, she thought such exposure would be good for me. As far as the cough went, she was a great believer in will power. If I made up my mind that I would not cough, I would not feel any need to cough.
She was a kind but, to an eight-year-old, quite formidable woman. When she bent her eagle like gaze upon me and told me that no matter what, I was Not to Cough, I got the message. To help will power a little, she gave me a box of Allenbury's Black Currant Pastilles, and told me to keep sucking--noiselessly--on one of them. Thus warned, armed, and prepared, I arrived at the concert. Our seats, as I very dimly recall, were in a box, on the left side, quite close to the stage. The hall was a dazzle. I had never seen such a huge room so full of people.
Everything was strange, meaningless, fascinating. All those people on the stage, all those strange sounds. But for that cough, the concert might well have been a delight for me. To tight back a cough is hard enough or too hard even for adults, as any concertgoer knows. For a child it was close to torture. How much of the time I was actually fighting back a cough, and how much of the time I was worrying that I might have to, I don't remember. I felt Granny's eye on me all the while.
My visible struggles not to cough may well have spoiled the concert for her, as well as me. In later years she took me and my sister lane to the theater many times. These were always happy occasions. But I did not go to another symphony concert and then not with her until my mid-twenties, when I had left the Navy and was living and working in New York. My First Instrument When I was about nine or ten someone gave me for Christmas an instrument called a banjoukulele.
This was a hybrid-- strung, tuned, and played like a ukulele, but with a banjo like head, on which someone had painted some sort of Hawaiian scene. At first I was excited with my new toy. Two of my friends had ukuleles, or ukes, of the ordinary kind, with a wooden body. From them, or an instruction book, I learned to tune the instrument to the notes of the scale solao-mi-la, to which we sang a little song, "My Dog Has Fleas. It seemed a good trick, and like all kids with a new trick, I was happy to do it for a while. But after that, what else was there to do! We didn't know anybody else who played the ukulele.
It didn't make a pretty enough sound to make us want to play it more. We didn't know any good songs that we wanted to sing, and in fact, didn't want to sing at all. What we really wanted to do, and did, was make model airplanes; along with playing football and baseball--we had not yet become fans--it was the central passion of our lives. It was real work and, in a small way, real craftsmanship. In those days there were no molded plastic parts, all made and ready to glue together. What we bought were kits--Ideal Model Airplanes, in orange boxes, and for a quarter! From these plans we traced onto the balsa wood the outlines of wings, tail, and fuselage.
With single-edged razor blades, or maybe sharp pocket knives, we then cut out these parts, lovingly sandpapered them to the proper aerodynamic shapes, then glued them together--also delicate work--and painted them. We usually did this together, and as we worked and talked, enjoyed a rich fantasy life in these mostly World War I airplanes, though for some of the newer airplanes we invented new and even more exotic wars. My own favorite plane was the Curtis Akron Fighter, a small biplane designed to be launched from and recovered by large airships. It seemed the most beautiful object I had ever seen; lust to look at a picture of the plane, or at the plans, or even at one of my own models of it, gave me a thrill of pleasure.
Compared to all this, what was "Little Brown Jug" or the banjo-uke? In a short while it went into a closet. Whether my parents gave it away or threw it away, I don't know. I never missed it, never looked for it, never thought about it again. Remembered Songs Among my musical memories are some songs of the late twenties and early thirties. Good songs, with lyrics usually sexist by today's standards, often ridiculously sentimental, but often wonderfully lighthearted and foolish.
Yes, sir, that's my baby No, sir, don't mean maybe Yes, sir, that's my baby now You're the cream in my coffee, You're the lace in my shoe, You will always be, My necessity, I'd be lost without you. Hiya Duchess old pal, old kid, old sock, old thing, old gal. One song, or rather, something in the instrumental back- ground of the song, made a great impression on me. The music began with a rhythmic pattern of five notes, what musicians call I later learned an ostinato "obstinate" , played over and over again.
On tuned tympani! Bass fiddle! Some combination of these? I couldn't tell. That rhythmic figure stuck fast in my memory; over the years it has played itself many times in my mind. Only when I started this book did I begin to try to figure out what the notes were. They proved to be very simple: the first five notes of the major scale played backwards, thus: C F E D C, or sol-fa-mi-re-do, but with the fourth note, the D or "re," flatted or lowered another half-step, to D flat or C sharp.
These notes were played to the rhythm dum, dum, dum-da-dum, or musical notes Something about that insistent rhythmic pattern, the first ostinato I had ever heard, or about the descending notes, or the sound, slightly sinister, of that flatted fourth note, all caught my musical imagination. Good songs all, sung in the style of the times by men with rather high, swoony voices.
When we moved from New York City to New Canaan, we began to listen to the radio, from which I picked up a few more songs. It came on at 6 P. If my father took the early train home from work, he would arrive lust as the program started, and he always made us turn it off. If he took the later train, he didn't get home until the program was over--and there was nothing after it that we cared about hearing.
Naturally we always pulled for that later train. Buck Rogers had no songs or music, but there were songs on other programs that came just before it, that we listened to from time to time. At about a trio of singers, Brook, Dave, and Bunny came on, sponsored by the soap Oxol: It beats all, how Oxol, lust cleans all it touches And makes each wash as white as winter snow. So we got to know the Bobby Benson closing song. To this day I don't know whether it was, so to speak, a real song, or one written just for the program. But I liked it then and do now: Goin' back, to my good old Texas home, home, home Down by the sleepy Rio Grande Where the lonesome turtle does his grievin' And the moonbeams shine down on the sand.
Goin' back, where the longhorn cattle roam, roam, roam And your best friend is your bronco and your gun ya-hoo! There I know I'll never more be leavin' Texas home my ramblin' days are done. Then there was the awful Li'l Orphan Annie song. We despised Li'l Orphan Annie. Come to think about it, we didn't like any programs - or for that matter, any books--that were about children. In our fantasy lives we were always grown-ups. But even though we didn't like Li'l Orphan Annie or her song either, the song stuck in my mind.
Raise high the red and black Our name to defend, etc. Like most high school football songs it was probably lifted from some college song, but I don't know which one. In seventh grade I had the only music class in my entire school career. It was nothing we looked forward to. A young man taught us. Did we sing? I suppose so, but I forget what. What else did we do? I have no idea.
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Jolly Boating Weather It was during these years that, for the first time in my life, I was strongly moved by a piece of music. It happened at Granny's house in Falmouth Foreside, just outside of Portland, Maine, where we used to visit every summer. In the summers when I was about eight or nine, Cranny's sister Aunt Jessie came to visit her. In an already happy summer, this was always an especially happy occasion. Children always like visitors since we felt that Granny's house was our house, we felt that Aunt Jessie was visiting us.
New adults are interesting, if they are kindly and friendly, as Aunt Jessie was. Visitors change the routine of the house, stir up things a bit. Also, though we loved Granny and felt comfortable around her, she was a rather serious and austere woman, while Aunt Jessie was more infer- mal, more of a joker. The two women liked to talk and had much to talk about. Like all serious adult talk this was very interesting to us children. But perhaps Aunt Jessie's greatest attraction for us was that she could play the piano, the first person we had ever known who could really play any musical instrument.
On many evenings we would all go into a small sitting room, Aunt Jessie would sit down at the large black upright piano, and we would play and sing together songs from a book called College Songs. It was a large, old book, probably published well before the turn of the century. Of the songs we sang, I have since heard only two. One was called "Upidee," the words taken from the poem "Excelsior" about the youth who for reasons not made clear carried a "banner with a strange device" to the top of an Alp where he froze to death.
After each verse of the original poem, this nonsense chorus: Upidee, idee, ida Upidee, upida Upidee, idee, ida Upidee ida A sad poem perhaps but a merry song. The other was called "Funiculi, funicula. There were two songs that we often sang at the same time, my first taste of polyphony. But "Solomon Levi" had more interesting words, and it was a musical challenge to see if we could keep them in time with the other song. Because it is too good to be lost, I am going to put down here both the words and the music. I hope some readers will try it out: In Brooklyn city there lived a maid And she was known to fame Her mother's name was Mary Ann And hers was Mary Jane And every Saturday morning She used to go over the river And went to the market where she sold eggs And sausages, likewise liver.
Patrick's Day But the donkey took fright at a jersey man And started to run away chorus McCloskey shouted and hollered in vain But the donkey wouldn't stop He threw Mary Jane right over its head And into a crockery shop But when he saw this awful sight His heart was moved with pity So he stabbed the donkey with a bit of charcoal And started for Salt Lake City musical notes But the song that gave me what I might call my first aesthetic experience, one of being strongly moved by something in the music itself, was called "Jolly Boating Weather.
I didn't know what or where Eton was, thought the boats were sailboats, and didn't know what a "stein" was. But every time we sang the song, it made my eyes water and my throat choke up. The song began like this: I include what words I can remember The first three lines are ordinary enough, pleasant but nothing exceptional. It was in the fourth line that the music took the turn that always surprised and moved me. One might have expected the fourth line to go something like this: But instead, it did this: musical notes just as it was about to go up to where it was obviously meant to go and had to go, it drew back, said, in e8ect, "No, not yet," landed on that to me altogether surprising F-sharp.
And it was that note, that pulling back, that always got me. Then, in the chorus, the song went on up to where it had to go. It would have been easy to end the song with the last four lines sung just once instead of twice. Once again the song draws back, says, "Not yet," before coming up to its thrilling close. And that last low C, on "ta-ble " instead of the expected G, is a final surprise. It must have been a wonderful song for the young men for whom it was written. It was certainly a wonderful song for us to sing, perhaps our favorite of all.
Swinging at Exeter The Big Bands I did not begin to listen seriously to music until I went away to school at Exeter, with about other boys in grades nine through twelve. The music I heard there was the big band swing of the middle and late 19'30s, wonderful music, full of melody, rhythm, and spirit, played with tremendous skill and exuberance by gifted musicians. I loved it then and do now. I did not hear much of this music in my first year at school We ninth graders, or "preps," were housed together in two prep dormitories, Dunbar and Webster.
In these dorms, I'm not sure we were even allowed to have record players; at any rate, no one that I knew did. My first whiff of the music came in the fall of j6. For the Fall Dance, the school had engaged Count Basie and his band, then at their very peak. He was to lead many fine bands in the next forty years, but perhaps none as great as this.
The big dance was in the evening, in the basketball court of the gym, all prettied up for the occasion. From the metal girders over the middle of the dance floor hung a huge, slowly turning sphere, covered with little bits of glass that reflected all over the room the colored spotlights that shone on it. In the late afternoon, after all the athletic events were over, there was a short so-called tea dance. Most of the usual entrances to the basketball court were sealed off; the only way in, guarded by ticket takers, was through the big door to the outside. But from the top of one stairwell we could see through a window lust a little of the dance floor and, on a raised platform at the side, the band itself.
There was an impression of light and vivid color, of men with shiny instruments, and a bright and powerful sound. But that sound was meaningless to me; I had not yet learned to listen to it, to hear what was in it, even to know the sounds of the instruments that made it. It would be another four years or so before I would begin to know and love the music that Count Basie and his men were making that afternoon.
In my second year at school I began to listen to swing records. My first real favorite, whose music from that period, at least I like to this day, was Tommy Dorsey. The jukeboxes all over town were playing his recording of "Song Of India," still famous. Like most of his instrumental recordings at that time, it was a swing arrangement of an old and famous tune. In these Dorsey would begin by playing the theme on his trombone against a soft, gently swung background. Nobody has ever done this better; he had a marvelous tone, and a way of phrasing that was so natural that you weren't conscious of it at all.
After his solo came some music for the whole orchestra, then some solos, generally by Johnny Mince on clarinet, Bud Freeman on sax, Dave Tough on the drums, and, best of all, Bunny Berigan on trumpet. He was my first love on that instrument, and though I have since heard many other players whose work also excites and moves me, he is still my favorite.
He was apparently a very unhappy man and, when still young, drank himself to death. Something of this sadness is in all of his great solos. Beyond that, they were melodically extraordinarily inventive.
Since Dorsey built most of his arrangements on classical or semi classical themes, Berigan could not stay in the conventional jazz-blues pattern on which most solos were built, but had to improvise around different harmonic patterns. He was amazingly good at this; in all the jazz I've heard, I have never found anything better than his famous solos on "Song Of India" and "Marie. Perhaps my favorite of all is the little-known solo he did on Dorsey's recording of "Liebestraum. Yet it fits the song, so much so that I can't hear the song without hearing the solo.
It was the first record I ever bought, and I still have it. As I listened to these records and came to know them better, I began to whistle along with them, first the arrangements, then the solos as well. I had never whistled much before, but this music excited me so much that I wanted to take part in it, and be part of it, and whistling was the only way I could do it. Indeed, as I whistled I was in fantasy actually part of the band, now playing brass, now sax or clarinet. I also developed a kind of soundless whistle which I used when whistling out loud seemed the wrong thing to do.
The soundless whistle had another advantage-by bringing my lips close together and forcing the air between lips and teeth I could make a sound that for me represented the brass section, while by using the back of my tongue and throat--rather like the "ch" in the German "ach"--I could make a sound to represent the reed section. Both sounds could be varied in pitch, and so equipped I could, so to speak, take my own swing band with me wherever I went.
This is something I still like to do. By my third year at school, like many of my schoolmates, I was a devoted, not to say fanatic listener. I had become friends with a boy who had a big collection of Benny Goodman records. He also had a custom-made record player that his father, an electrical engineer, had built for him. It was larger than the little boxes the rest of us used, and was housed in a black metal case painted with the crinkly black paint that seems to go with exotic machinery. It looked much better than anything we were used to, and it was; it was high fidelity for its time, and I listened to it as much as I could.
The school rule was that there could be no playing of record players after 8 P. There were radios in the common rooms, or "butt rooms," which we could play until to P. I suppose the idea was that if we had radios, we would be tempted to break the eight o'clock rule in order to hear certain late programs, while with record players, which we could play anytime, we would be less tempted.
We were tempted anyway. Every so often we would be overcome by the urge to hear a really fine record after 8 P. The teachers' rooms were close to our own; to play a record player out loud, even very softly, was too risky. But my friend or perhaps his scientific father had worked out a solution. He had figured out that sound can be conducted through the bones of the law, and had used this knowledge to make a great invention. He would push a steel needle through the eraser of a pencil.
Next he would start the record playing, but with the volume turned all the way down, so that no sound came out of the speaker. Then one of us would hold one end of the pencil between his teeth, and put the needle, held by the eraser, on the grooves of the record. The needle picked up the sound from the record grooves, and the sound ran up the pencil, through teeth and laws, and into our ears. It was not high fidelity, even by the standards of those days, but it worked; we really could hear the music.
Sometimes, late at night, two or three of us would be there, all bent over the spinning turntable, each with a pencil gripped between his teeth. Many of the bands we hired for our dances were lust getting started, full of excitement and enthusiasm, playing as well as they would ever play. I remember when Harry James was announced for one of the dances. We all knew him from his playing in Benny Goodman's band and wondered what his own band would be like.
Suddenly the word was out that he had made a new recording of his theme song, "Ciribiribin. The record began with a very schmaltzy, traditional rendering of the tune, in waltz time, no less. We stood around the record player, aghast. This band was going to play at our Fall Dance! Once again we knew we were going to have good music.
And indeed, of all the bands I heard at school, that early James band was one of the best. Berigan's band was also very good. He was drinking heavily then.
I remember, late in the evening, standing up close to the bandstand while he played "I Can't Get Started" and others of his great pieces. He was playing his trumpet with one hand, holding on to the mike with the other, and I suddenly realized with a thrill of excitement that he was holding onto the mike to keep from falling down. Even drunk he played beautifully. At about that time something else happened in the world of recordings that caused great excitement among us jazz lovers.
All records up to that time had been ten-inch 78 rpm records, with a playing time of about three minutes. There was time for a much more extended arrangement, all in the kind of minor mode that we found exciting; for much longer solos, including a dramatic one by Harry James; and above all, for what seemed like hours of thrilling tom-tom drumming by Gene Krupa. We had never heard anything like it. I listened to it over and over again, learned all the solos, even learned to drum out on a table edge Gene Krupa's rhythmic rig. What excitement!
Another one of those twelve-inch records featured Berigan's famous "I Can't Get Started" and, on the other side, a superb version of "The Prisoner's Song," with, at the very end, a few bars of Bunny playing the most mournful and heartbroken trumpet playing I have ever heard. He literally made his horn weep.
Jazz Whistling Sometime during my third year at school I began a new part of my musical life. One day, as I was whistling one of the many swing records I had learned by heart, the thought came to me, "Why not make up some jazz solos of your own! I may have thought it would be easy. It turned out not to be. The first results were terrible. I could whistle only a few notes of the simplest, most banal kind of blues. But I kept at it, and the solos slowly became better. They tended and still tend to stay within the basic metrical and harmonic pattern of blues and swing that I was used to: eight bars of solo in a given key, eight more bars, a variation of the first but in the same key, an eight-bar bridge passage in a different key, and then eight closing bars in the original key.
Most jazz arrangements and solos, and most of the popular songs of the times, were in this pattern. The harmonic pattern, too, was simple, though I still don't know enough musical theory to say what it was. But within those simple patterns the great musicians of the thirties did some wonderful things. Inspired by them, my own jazz whistling became freer, more melodic and inventive. Some of the time it was still rather labored and predictable, but every now and then i would surprise myself. I would hear in my mind, or whistle soundlessly or even out loud, a solo so varied, unexpected and lust all-around right that it was as if I had not "thought of it" at all, but it had been made somewhere else and lust happened to come out through me.
This some- times happened when I had been listening to a lot of good jazz and swing and had been inspired by it. But it quite often happened when I had not been whistling jazz for some time, or even hearing it or thinking about it. It was as if the sub- or unconscious creative music-malting part of my mind had been busy for some time making something good, and was now ready to show it to me. One winter evening around ', when I had not heard any jazz or swing, live or recorded, in some time, I was going with my sister and her husband to a little night spot in Poughkeepsie.
Even though we could hardly hear them over the din of voices in the packed little room, I could tell they were good. Something in the lightness and crispness of their rhythm touched a musical button in me, and as we stood in the lobby taking off and checking coats, hats, boots, etc. To the critical mind inside me it seemed the best I had ever done, and a very good solo even by the standards of the music I listened to. Another voice inside was saying, "Holy Smoke! Where in the world is this coming from?
Then it was over, and I could not remember a note of it. But it was a fine moment. Sometimes, then and now, the music maker inside would deliver up to me not just solos, but complete jazz or swing arrangements, with solos included. Since the swing and jazz pieces of the times, except for "Sing, Sing, Sing" and a few others, were all about three minutes long, to fit on one side of a ten-inch 78 rpm record, most of my made-up arrangements fit this format--thirty-two bars of the jazz tune, two or three solos, and then a closing statement, a jazz coda.
Once, though, influenced by "Sing, Sing, Sing" and the harmonic possibilities of the song, the inner music maker produced a long arrangement, with solos, of "Bei Mir Bist Du Schbin" which the song rhymed with "explain". As I was doing and hearing this arrangement, it seemed very good. But once over, it was gone. Another time there was a more Basie-like arrangement, which I named "Palomar Stomp. I had never been there, but liked the name.
Did I ever think of learning to write music so that 1 could write down some of these tunes and arrangements! As far as I can recall, even in my world of fantasy no such thought ever crossed my mind. In those days 1 was a passenger in the car of life, not a driver. I accepted what came to me, and dealt with it as best 1 could. It had not yet occurred to me that I might actually decide what I most wanted to do, and take steps to do it.
That part of my life would only begin some years later, and not with music. Fantasia and the Classics Not until my last year at school did I ever hear anyone play any classical records. For some reason it annoyed me, I can't now think why. The big tunes, which were all I could hear over his tinny little record player, were fine swinging tunes, and would have made good raw material for a hot swing arrangement.
Years later, when I met the piece again, I loved it, and still do. Maybe if I'd heard it at school on a really good record player, I would have liked it then. But during those same years the doors to classical music opened to me, without my knowing it, when I went to see Walt Disney's Fantasia. I loved it, even Deems Taylor and the business about the sound track, which would not have fooled a child much younger than I. I liked all the music, probably in part because what I was hearing was so much closer to the sound of a real orchestra than anything I had ever heard before.
And Mickey Mouse as the apprentice seemed lust about right. But only one piece of music made a lasting impression on me--Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. I had never heard a note of it, never even heard of it. But Sir Thomas Beecham once said that great music is music that penetrates the ear and sticks in the mind, and that music certainly penetrated me, right to the bone. A few weeks later I could probably not have whistled two bars' worth of the music of any other piece in the picture, but great chunks of the melodies of The Rite of Spring stuck in my mind until I heard it again some years later, and have stayed with me ever since.
I can sing along with it as easily as with any of my old Goodman or Dorsey records, and even without the record I know by heart the tunes of at least three quarters of it. The images certainly helped. Stravinsky himself disliked it, but making the film an allegory of the life of the planet Earth itself made it for me, at least far more powerful than any images of tribal dances could have been. In one place, however, Stravinsky's image does fit better than Disney's.
After the uproar at the end of the first half of the piece, there is a long quiet passage called "The Pagan Night. Apart from that I don't think of any images anymore when 1 hear the music, the music itself is enough. One small exception: In the last movement there is a short motive, six or seven notes, going down two successive half tones, often given by muted trombones, sometimes by other instruments. To me it has never sounded like anything but maniac laughter. Even though I don't think of them when I hear the music, two of Disney's images stick with me.
The section "The Pagan Night" begins with a group of slow, arch like phrases played in soft, dense chords by almost the whole orchestra, as if the Earth itself were breathing. Then there follow some lighter, but also slow-moving and gentle melodies. These go on for a while until they are interrupted by a two-note phrase, a rising major second played by muted horns, very sinister, almost like a voice saying, "Look out! More slow melodies, until they are finally interrupted, this time insistently, by the horns, now playing a rising minor seventh it is this music that I use to remember the interval of the minor seventh.
About six of these horn calls, and then the whole orchestra comes crashing in with a jagged downward phrase, almost like someone falling downstairs, following which both tympanists now I see only the orchestra , a stick in each hand, begin to whack their tympani with all their strength, barn!
Disney made this the entrance of Tyrannosaurus Rex, always a popular favorite, and the beginning of a fight between him and Stegosaurus. In the next movement we hear a sad march tune on muted brass, first soft, then very loud. Disney made this powerful and mournful music the accompaniment to a tragedy, the extinction of the dinosaurs. After the death of Stegosaurus, he shows us a drought-stricken earth under a blazing sun, and the dinosaurs marching, looking vainly for water. Even though I knew that Disney was reading human thoughts into dinosaur minds, and that they could hardly have been aware of their coming extinction, it was a powerful image, still vivid after almost forty years.
For I have not seen the film since, mostly because I am afraid that seeing it might spoil my memories of it. At any rate, whether because of the images that went with it, or because of the strangeness, power, and beauty of the music itself, The Rite of Spring went into my mind and stayed there. Not long after, I heard a member of the family who knew a lot about music and went regularly to concerts of the New York Philharmonic, sounding off about what a scandal and disgrace Fantasia was, and how it cheapened the music.
I thought then and still think that she was absolutely wrong. Landers My first experience of serious music making, and my first inkling of what it might be like to be a musician, and what great joys might be had from it, came when in my last year at Exeter I joined the Glee Club. Most of us didn't loin because of any love of music. What we were after was one more activity to list under our senior picture in the school yearbook. Like most students, we assumed that anyone seeing our picture would judge our importance on campus by the number of entries under it.
But we lesser folk felt we needed something extra. Why not the Glee Club! It was a thoroughly respectable activity--much more so than, say, the Chess Club. It took several trips each year to girls' schools to sing with their Glee Clubs, and such trips away from our all-male campus were a welcome change. Many of us may have enjoyed the singing we sometimes did in compulsory morning assembly called Chapel, though it was not very religious --I know I did. One song we sang often was "Upidee. Landers, who led this singing, seemed a pleasant enough man.
We also sang hymns in Sunday church also compulsory , and though like most of my friends I was not at all religious, I loved to sing some of the fine old songs. If most of us were not very good singers and had not done much singing, at least we had never found any reason to dislike it. So into the Glee Club we went.
Luckily there was plenty of room for us. The year before, the school had had a magnificent Glee Club, one of the finest anyone could remember. Most of them had graduated, leaving Arthur Landers with only a handful of experienced singers. He needed all the voices he could get. There may have been some sort of auditions or tryouts, but they were not demanding; anyone who could carry a tune got in. Then began a strange encounter, Arthur Landers and us. For a while both of us must have suffered from a kind of culture shock. In his long career he can hardly ever have seen such a raw bunch of recruits.
We might be able to carry a tune, but that was about all we could do. We had never done any choral singing, knew nothing about music, and could not read a note. He may have toyed for a moment with the idea of teaching at least some of us to read music, al least a little, so that we might get some help from the written notes we held in our hands.
But the task was too great, there wasn't enough time, there were concerts coming up to be prepared, and to get this gang ready to sing a full program in time for the first concert was going to be all he could manage. On our part, we had to get used to the demands and discipline of music, and also to him. On the whole, the teachers we admired and liked most tended to be rather tweedy pipe-smoking types, many of them coaches of sports and still active athletes, who often competed against us in faculty- student matches. In other words, men much like our businessmen fathers and their businessmen friends, not particularly intellectual at least, as far as we knew and not artistic at all.
Landers did not fit into this mold. He was like no one we had ever known, a being from another world. He was, in short, an artist and musician. It didn't take him long to win us over. What did it, more than anything else, was that he was serious about music, loved it, gave himself over to it without reservations, and expected us to do the same. One of the first songs he had us sing was "Sir Eglamore. The tune itself was not very beautiful or interesting.
The whole point of the song was in the words; I can see now that it was a kind of study in the pronunciation of consonants. The song began: Sir Eglamore, that gallant knight Fa, la, lanky down dilly, He took up his sword and he went for to fight Fa, la, lanky down dilly.
I can see us now as he presented this song to us, with the news that we were going to learn it, and sing it, and in front of other people. We sat in front of him, in rows, on bleachers. We had not yet learned how to behave at rehearsals, so there was still much nudging, whispering, poking of feet. We were in that frame of mind where we hardly dared look at each other, lest it start us laughing.
And now here was this song. Fa, la, lanky down dilly, indeed! Did he expect us to sing that? Yes, he did, and told us to. So we tried it. What came out must have been some sort of confused rumble. We did not know how to sing consonants quickly and clearly, even if we wanted to. With these words we did not want to; in embarrassment, in fear of being laughed at by each other, we slurred over them even more. Landers would have none of it. Do it again, like this and he would bare his teeth and show the tip of his tongue, pronouncing with extra clearness those ridiculous sounds.
Of course we all laughed, perhaps with more than a little mockery or contempt. He may well have heard this, but he didn't care. What was important was not his dignity as a faculty member, but the music, getting these words right. Again exaggerating, he would sing the words once more, then tell us to sing them. And slowly, perhaps without our even knowing it, there must have crept into our minds the thought, "Well, if he isn't afraid of making a damn fool of himself, maybe I don't have to be afraid of making a damn fool of myself. For behind our elaborately cool and even cynical facades, we were ready, like most young people, to be serious about some- thing, and without knowing it were looking for things worth being serious about.
Those few among us who were skillful athletes found it in sports; another few found it in this or that extracurricular activity. Almost none of us found it in our studies. We worked for grades, to get B's and A's if we were that type, to escape D's and E's if we weren't. But we didn't care, and on the whole, we didn't feel that our teachers cared. If they did, they didn't convey it to us.
In four years at that school and four more at college, I remember only three or four teachers, if that many, who made me feel that they were deeply interested in, loved, what they were teaching. Or preaching. To our compulsory Sunday church came many of the leading ministers and theologians of the Northeast. With only one exception, they tried to sell us Christianity, as they might have tried to sell us a vacuum cleaner.
They were hearty, man-to- man, plain-talking, and reasonable, and it rarely took us more than a few minutes, walking back to our dorms after church, to pick and blow their arguments to pieces. The exception was a man whose name I wish 1 could remember. He preached at school three times, I think, while I was there. Each time he told us, in unashamedly poetic language, what Christianity meant in his life. He exposed his heart to us, and after the service my friends and I walked home silent, close to tears, almost afraid to look at each other.
How badly we needed, and how rarely we found, people who would talk to us that way, who would take us seriously enough to give unsparingly of themselves. In his rather different way, this is what Mr. Landers did. Once we began to give ourselves to the music and to take our work seriously, we found it enormously challenging and interesting, and except for the handful with musical experience altogether different from anything we had ever done.
We began also to realize that Mr. Landers was an extremely good teacher. I was not to see for many years that in one sense music is a very special kind of athletics; had I seen the parallel then, I would have said he was a great coach. One of the first things we worked on, not easy even for expert musicians, was entrances and cutoffs, how to start singing, or stop, all at once. He would pick out a note, give us a signal to begin, and there would be half a dozen audibly different entrances.
A signal to stop; same story. We did it over and over again, and doing it, learned in a way we had never known, to pay attention. We had also to learn how and when to breathe, how to pronounce vowels as well as consonants, how to use our voices, how to sing softly, and, hardest of all for the tenors, how to sing high notes without straining. I can hear Mr. Landers now, telling us to get those eyebrows down. When we strained, up they went, and we couldn't get them down until we stopped straining.
Later he conveyed this with a gesture, his two hands above his own eyebrows, moving them down. Still later, he could tell us with a look. Once he had us divided up into first tenors, second tenors, baritones, and basses, he had to seat us in a way that would make best use of his small group of good singers. In any un- skilled singing group people tend to be either leaders or leaners.
The leaders know the music and can read their parts at least well enough to know, with a fair chance of being right, when they are supposed to start or stop singing. The leaners know the music much less well and can't read the parts at all, so they listen carefully to the leaders and copy them. Log In. Caveat New York, NY. Get Tickets There are no active dates for this event. Tickets for this show are no longer available online, but tickets can still be purchased at the door at PM at Caveat. Cash only. Not Available. Contact us Email support brownpapertickets. The fair-trade ticketing company.
Forget your login? Find An Event. Create Your Event. Share this event:. Get Tickets. In this one-man cabaret show, Jim takes the audience on a journey of his life, from his childhood days in the Pacific Northwest to his dreams of living in New York City. If My Life Were A Musical is a personal story with a universal message: it's never too late to follow your dreams!