A Jam Session: Never Judge A Book By It's Cover!
This is a cool story! It is also completely true, so I am going to "tamper" with the names a bit out of respect to all involved.
This happened in the early 80's.
There was a trumpeter in Chicago for whom I had GREAT admiration. He'd turn up gigs with me, now and then and, as a jazz improviser, would just blow the doors off the place. He also had respectable high chops, so he could easily do a bit of a Dizzy thing and venture into the stratosphere. It was really exciting to hear him play.
He was probably about ten years older than I was. He was a Viet Nam veteran and saw some really hard time in the war. He saw some brutal action and this affected him sorely. I went to his place to hang out with him a couple of times to pick his brains about chops and changes and he did share a bit about his experiences with me. It was pretty tough.
As a result of the hard times he experienced, he had a debilitating alcohol problem. He was keenly aware of it and he spoke openly about that with me, as well.
He was an extremely nice and very humble man. He knew he could play but he NEVER got big headed about it. He could always find way he could do things better. Some would say he was self effacing to a fault.
He did spend some time on the road with at least one well known road band. We'll leave that name out of the narrative. Suffice to say, it was impressive. He played lead and jazz with that band, at one point! Quite an achievement.
During one of the hang sessions, he explained to me about how he played jazz the way he did. It was very simple by today's standards. He told me in all candor that he knew almost NOTHING chord progressions or the changes to tunes. He did like to mess around with scales and modes, a bit. He loved whole tone scales. What he did do, he explained to me, was play totally by ear. He just played what sounded good to his ear. This is very much an old school way of thinking. He had a great deal of experience and knew hundreds of tunes, so that would surface in his playing.
In other words, his impressive improvisation skills were virtually totally instinctual.
Now, that I've laid the ground work a bit, here is a story he told me about when he first came to Chicago.
As always, one way to become know when you first come to a new market is to go out and do some jam sessions - both to play a bit and do some networking. Let's call my friend 'Mr. X.' Well, Mr. X did just that.
There was a decent jam session at a funny little dive on the north side of Chicago run by a seasoned horn player (Mr. Y) and a much younger hot shot trumpeter (Mr. Z).
Mr. X turned up at the jam session for the first time. "I was wearing my old ratty army fatigues, and I hadn't shaved. I KNOW I looked more like a homeless person who walked in off the street to warm up," X told me. "The last thing they expected was for me to turn up with a trumpet and ask to sit in." He continued, "Mr. Z took one look at me and saw a piece of red meat he could chew up and spit out. He asked me what I wanted to play. I said, 'How about Donna Lee?'" "Sure," said Mr. Z, "but let's play it in A and play it UP!" Mr. X, Continuing his story, "Well, I've been playing Donna Lee since I was in high school, so playing it fast in A was no big deal."
I want to interject, I've heard Mr. X play Donna Lee and he could just blaze his way through it. His solos on that tune were always spot on and impressive.
X, continuing, "We played the head and then they tossed it to me for a few choruses. No problems. They weren't expecting me to play all that well, but I nailed it, even in A. When Mr. Z took over for the next couple of choruses, he was a bit distracted. It didn't go so well for him." At this point, Mr. X couldn't hold back a smile as he was telling the story. "At least they learned that I could at least play a bit!"
Mr. Z was a bit humbled and respectful, after the fact. The leader, Mr. Y, probably could see it all coming, but just let it play out with a warped sense of amusement of the misjudgment of Mr. Z!
In hearing Mr. X tell his story, and knowing his playing, I'm 100% sure that his telling of the story downplayed his own playing. I'm sure folks in the band were listening with goggling eyes and mouths agape! My friend was really that good.
The old adage, "never judge a book by it's cover" really applies here. My friend had his share of problems and those problems did show on the surface, now and then, but he deserved the benefit of a doubt. Absent that, he just played his heart out and let his spirit and horn announce his presence with authority.
Mr. X eventually left Chicago. He couldn't keep his work load up as his drinking would get the better of him and he'd loose gig after gig, as a result. He told me he knew he was doing it, but just couldn't stop himself.
He bopped around New York a bit, and moved up and down the east coast a bit. He eventually drank himself to death. I was quite saddened to hear of his passing from a mutual friend in NYC. I do have a video of his playing in my studio. The sound quality is awful but he plays Donna Lee, and plays wonderfully. He was in a good place, at that point.
I'll choose to think of him in that good place. The world of music was a bit better off when he was here.