Playing piano and composing music plays a special role in my life. I have posted a composition I am currently writing. You can here it here if you don’t want to read this blog entry first
I grew up in a home pretty devoid of music. The first time I started to really listen to music was when I about eight years old and would go to the coffee shop/soda fountain down the street to get a cherry coke or eat a hot fudge Sunday (how I miss those). They had a juke box which played 45 RPM records This was a few years before Elvis came on the scene and popular music changed forever. Good thing for me because I got to listen to the “standard sung by people like Nate King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. I still like to listen to this music and better yet play these songs on the piano. Later, when I was eleven years old or so, I started going to parties where I could dance with girls. I was mostly interested in the slow numbers for obvious reasons. My favorite was “Put Your Head on my Shoulder” song by Paul Anka.
In 1960 I was fifteen years old, and ended up taking a class in Chorus at Lincoln High School. I was doing very poorly at school and was in danger of being put back a semester for the second time. My high school counselor suggested Chorus because no one really flunked that class even if you could not carry a tune. It was a decision that made a major impact on my life. By the way, I never did graduate from Lincoln. Luckily my mom sent me Drew High school, private school in San Francisco where I tested out and got degree in about six months.
I became friends with another student taking the class, named Rich Falvey (we are still friends now after 52 years). Rich and I had many similar interests such as history, philosophy, poetry and science. We were pretty nerdy guys. Rich really wanted to become a composer. He played piano, listen to classical music and composed music. Rich is still writing music but has never made a living from music. He introduced me to classical music and provided me with a very extensive knowledge of the history of western music which serves me to this day.
I asked Rich to tell me how music works. It was the scientist in me that was asking for an explanation of music theory. I learned about the structure of musical pieces and how they evolved. I learned about modes, scales and rhythms. I had already learned to read music in my chorus class. In particular, I studied from a very advanced book by the composer Paul Hindemith.
Then one day, I wrote my first piece of music. It was pretty good for a first piece and somehow it allowed me to get a small scholarship to take classes at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Playing piano was very useful to a composer so I started taking piano lessons as well. I had to get a part time job at a Jewelry Shop to pay for a piano and my lessons. Everyone told me that at fifteen, it was too late for me to become a pianist. That was probably true with respect to playing classical piano but it turns out starting late has not been much of a limitation to my ability to play jazz. I am pretty sure the greatest limitation was not listening to more music as a child. I still have to work on ear training.
I continued to study classical music theory, composition and arranging. I took up a few other instrument so I would get a feeling for what it was like to make music with them. I loved the trumpet and the clarinet in particular. Later I would try to play the guitar but I never could get into it.
In my 18th year, I discovered Jazz. I listened to John Coltrane play “My Favorite Things”, and my life was changed forever. I started listen to Jazz. When I gave up being a Merchant Seaman later in that year, I started taking jazz piano lessons. I worked up an arrangement of My Funny Valentine, a piece I still love to play. Unfortunately, I did not have the drive to practice more than an hour or two a day.
Around that time I fell deeply in love with a sixteen year old girl who had the most amazing soprano voice. I would accompany her on the piano but she was so much better then I was and went on to sing professionally. I wrote an arrangement of the Bachianas Brasileiras by Villa Lobos for her. I think it was guitar, cello and sax.
There was a pretty good Jazz scene in San Francisco in the early 60s mostly located in North Beach. Some of the greatest jazz musicians would perform at the a Jazz Workshop on Broadway. I was under age but snuck in to see a number of performer. The Fillmore District still had a few jazz clubs left over from its its heyday in the 50s.
Some of my friends were aspiring jazz musicians. We went to “after hour clubs” where musicians would go after their gigs would finish. Alcohol would be served in bottles wrapped in brown paper bags. The clubs were typically in the basement of Victorian houses in the Fillmore District. The would be dark with a few tables and a make shift stage. Many of the musicians and audience were on hard drugs and were shooting up in the bathroom. I never took anything more than Pot, Speed and LSD and even that was pretty rare. I use to joke that my friends wanted to get stoned and then practice while I wanted to practices and then get stoned. It was pretty clear to me that the music life was not a healthy life style. And I was really not that good as a musician and but I still dreamed of writing music.
The San Francisco music scene was really taking off. There was so much musical energy. The folk movement was still going strong thanks to the impact of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. The Jefferson Airplane had their debut in 1965 in San Francisco. I knew Paul Kantner at the time and hung out at Airplane home on Page Street. Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company showed up in 1966. I was lucky enough to be around them when they rehearsed. Janis was an amazing singer. She could bring tears to my eyes. There was music everywhere. Group like the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish would be protesting the Vietnam War. Much of this leading to the Summer of Love.
But I did not really like Rock music. By 1966, I was focused on my work at the Langley Porter Insitute working with Joe Kamiya where I developed the equipment to do the first brain wave bio feedback experiments. I was now a scientist. Music took a back burner in my life.
I did have a fantasy that I could program a computer to improvise jazz while monitoring the physiological changes in peoples as they listened to the music. The program would use that information to effect the music it was creating but the technology at the time was not adequate Even though I was working very hard, I still had a piano and continued to play the piano but no longer wrote music. Things continued this way for the next twenty five years.
Then in the early 90s, I began to write music again. By that time there were computer programs to help write and arrange music. The leading company was OpCode. I met Chris Halaby the CEO around this time and ended up as a member of that company’s board. That is when I learned about midi which is a computer protocol for music. I started writing music again but now could use my computer to record, edit and print my music.After a while, I realized it took much more time than I could devote. It was not something I could just jump into for 30 minutes a day. So I stopped once again but made a promise that once I was able to devote the time, I would start to compose again. That time came about ten years ago when I cut way back on my professional life. I used this time to improve my piano playing and now study with an very capable teacher. But I did not start to compose again.
Now as I approach this quarter of my life (my wife won’t let me say “the last quarter of my life”), I feel the urgency to both have the experience of writing music and the need to leave something behind that others including my grandchildren might enjoy someday. I have much better tools than I could have ever imagine. I am using Logic Pro to edit my music.
I have posted a piece I have been working on. It is called LA Morning. It is not complete by a long shot. I need to add several sections to it and then I will orchestrate it. I am hoping by going public with this work in progress, I will be encouraged to finish it. I am the piano player by the way. I hope you enjoy it. You can hear it here.