I owe the totality of the life I live today, in music and otherwise, to the music of Black Americans. Music shaped me and has provided everything in my life: my family, my home, my job, my friends, my community.
I have benefited my entire life (like my ancestors before me, and after me for the foreseeable future) from a system expressly designed to hold people down. From slavery to Jim Crow to redlining to mass incarceration, American “legalization” of oppression of our Black brothers and sisters has never abated. This moment we are in is not new. Indeed, it isn’t a “moment”.
I recognize, and have always recognized, that I am a “guest at the table” (thanks to Nicholas Payton for the correct words) in this music, and in my job in the Miles Davis Jazz Studies Program at UNCG. While I grew up listening to and loving jazz, it was my discovery of Mr. Davis' music that truly set me on my path. It has not been lost on me that I, a white Midwesterner by birth, am now the director of jazz studies at a school bearing the name of one of American music's most potent voices on race relations. I take that responsibility with grave seriousness.
I have made mistakes, and will continue to, in my pursuit of proper and complete advocacy for all marginalized people. The barriers must fall, and reparations must be made. It won’t be fast or simple, but this “moment” musn’t be wasted, and I refuse to look back on it and say I didn’t do my part.
I want to believe that my children, hopefully, will be able to look back at the end of their lives and feel that the steps we took together here changed America, that we *finally* worked as one to tip the scales.
And to my friends far and wide who disagree with what I have said here in any way shape or form, I don’t speak for you. I speak for me. Don’t fill my comments feed with contrarian viewpoints, memes, and/or counterattacks – I won’t and don’t do that. We’ll have a dialogue in person somewhere, someday. But the only way we can have a rational dialogue about these issues is to be coming from the same information. I keep recommending that people read “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo and “We Were Eight Years in Power” (who has my copy?) by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Please do. In the words of Brian Lampkin, “Books are good. Books help.” You can start here, one of the most powerful chapters in Coates’ book - https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/
Black Lives Matter. It’s 2020. 155 years since Emancipation. 122 years since Wilmington. 99 years since Tulsa. 55 years since Selma…
…and a week since George Floyd was murdered. That alone should have been long enough. Much love to all of you.
Thought I’d shoot you a message with Father’s Day approaching.
You know, Mom and Marc and I have been without you for 27 Father’s Days, and wow, a whole lot has happened. The whole world has changed….completely. I’d fill you in on all of it, but you wouldn’t believe most of it and you’d be pretty unhappy and cynical about it all, I imagine. Ha, maybe you’re better off!
I’m still playing your saxophone. I’m not sorry that I sound more like Sonny Rollins than Stan Getz, though…ha. You’d give me a hard time about that, no doubt, but I feel pretty good about what I’ve accomplished…and you would, too. I’m a LOT better now (and I still worship Stan).
The most important stuff to catch you up on is your grandkids.
Spenser is 17-going-on-30. He’s incredibly empathetic, shares openly, is smart, really funny, and looks a hell of a lot like me/you/Grandpa Eby, which is to say he’s devastatingly handsome. He has a crazy ear for pitch, used to play the trumpet and recently switched to drums. He can be heard (REALLY heard) in his room swinging out to Sinatra and rocking out to Queen on any given day. He only pulls out the trumpet now to unwittingly demonstrate how much better he is than the rest of us, lol (that means “laugh out loud”…you’d hate that).
Mira is 14-going-on-50. She’s a world-changer, deep thinker, and has an amazing amount of broad skills - singing, piano, dancing, ukulele, figure skating…wtf (that means “what the f…” nevermind). She’s really into musical theatre, and she’s great at it. She’s beautiful and kind like her mother and her voice makes me cry, like, always. She also has a dark and mildly twisted sense of humor that you would DEFINITELY appreciate.
It pains me that they’ll never know you like I did, and indeed that they’ll never know you as THEY would have (as a grandfather). It’s just the way it is, it’s not fair, and I get that. But I don’t have to like it.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to process how long you’ve been gone. A few months ago, I was telling the kids some story about how we would laugh at ridiculous things together. One of them asked me, “What was his laugh like?”. It was like a gut punch when I had to answer through a choked voice that I didn’t remember…
…I hate that. It was an innocent enough question, and it was so sweet that they asked...we were just having fun talking. That revelation shocked me, and it reinforced that we will never have those times back once they leave my memory. What a conundrum it is that we struggle to wall off the pain of losing those dear to us, but if we wall it off too much, or avoid talking or thinking about it too much, we also risk losing those important and bittersweet memories along with it. I don’t hide my sadness over losing you from them. I want them to know that it’s important to share the emotions that matter most to us.
In the last nearly three decades, one positive is that I’ve been able to lend a sympathetic ear to my many friends who have lost parents along the way. Just in the last short bit, my friends Ariel, Emma, Chris, and Wally have joined me in this most undesirable club. For some of them, it was a welcome and expected release; for others, it was shocking, sudden, or tragic. We always end up talking about them/their loved one and you/me/us. I always tell them that it never goes away, but it gets easier. I realize more and more as I get older that I don’t WANT it to go away. The more I lose of you to the degrading of my memory, the harder it seems to be.
I don’t know why I felt compelled to write this letter here and now. Due my own pretty strongly held beliefs, I know this letter will never reach its most sacred and desired set of eyes. Maybe it’s age…I’m closer to 50 than 40 now. I’d like to think I have a whole life yet to live, but our shared experience taught us that those assumptions are just that. If I don’t outlive you, I have 5 years left. What would we have done with those five years had you been able to see into the future? Because that’s what I should be doing now. And every other blessed day, month, and year I have left.
I’ll tell you what: One thing we do right around here is say “I love you”. Spenser and Mira can never say they haven’t heard that any less than probably ten times a day. I hope it hasn’t lost meaning for them, because I never say it when I don’t feel it. I hope we said it enough before 1993, because again, I don’t remember. And that sucks. But I atone for it now, even if have nothing to atone for.
It looks like I’ll be home to visit you in the fall, maybe even *on* Halloween – how darkly funny is it to visit a cemetery then? You’d appreciate that. I’ll probably have my friend Ariel with me. It’s still all pretty raw for her, and she’ll have to see that it’s still raw for me all these years later…
…and that’s OK, because it’s real and that’s what matters.
I love you.
My students probably get sick of me saying that they are allowed, even REQUIRED, to make mistakes.
It took me a long, long time to realize that I had to allow myself to fail without self-abuse in order to find success. I've always been a slow-learner in the field of music...I've had to work hard to get to my humble little space. In high school, I had very little self-consciousness regarding music - I could do everything anyone asked me to do ("Sure, I can play the blues scale in THAT key, too!"). It wasn't until Lynne Hart, my first real saxophone teacher, that I had someone putting music in front of me that I couldn't handle or couldn't understand. Even still, I tended to be the best (or nearly so) at what I was doing in my peer group, so fearing failure or not being the best didn't really register on my radar. It wasn't until I transferred to North Texas that I was, for the first time, not just around but SURROUNDED BY people who were better than me. At first, the fear of sucking was crippling. The bar for all of us was set SO high, and I began to fail with great regularity. Oh BOY, did I fail.
It was during this period that I learned to dislike what I was doing, because I absorbed the failing as some sort of flaw in my character, rather than a necessary part (and not a small part at all) of the musical process. Everyone has to face it at some point. Even those folks who seem to be the most talented and put together have had to deal with it on their level. I asked Wynton Marsalis in an interview I conducted with him at UNCG, "What was one of your most memorable experiences with failure?" He recounted the premiere of one of his symphonies with no less than the Atlanta Symphony, and he related his feelings about the experience in gory detail. One of the most esteemed and revered musicians in the world, humbly embracing what was, to him, an incredibly embarrassing experience, and in his 40s at the time.
In my studio, I often talk about how our path through musical development (a lifelong pursuit) involves accumulating experiences like binary code....1s being positives (for the context), 0s being negatives. One's musical development is about accumulating BOTH, so you both consciously and subconsciously can drift toward the positives and dance around the negatives.
"Oh, look, a B-natural sounds pretty good over Dmin7 if I'm in C, but not necessarily so great when that Dmin7 is in the key of B-flat. Duly noted, universe!"
Import enough positive and negative information, and you can be truly free to create something true (if you can manage to get out of your own way....see "The Inner Game of Tennis" or "Mindset"...PLEASE read these)
As I said, I was pretty slow to allow myself the flexibility to fail...nearly into my 30s. It's no surprise that that's the point in my life where I also experienced the most explosive growth in my artistic endeavors. And I learned to LOVE the process, even the parts when I'm sucking. No more would I come home from a gig and look at my horn with contempt, as if to say, "What are you doing to me? You're ruining my life." Through allowing myself to fail, and also having the brutal reality check of raising a child with a serious medical condition and the loss of one of my parents, I was finally able to grow, and to place the proper value and importance on music in my life.
One of the hardest things I've ever had to do, though, is to watch (sometimes in slow motion) and to ALLOW my children to make mistakes. It goes against my every instinct, in spite of what I have learned about music and life in my 44 years. It's one thing to allow for failure on learning a difficult technical study, or sound development exercise. It's quite another to watch someone who, quite literally, is on this earth because of you, have to go through a very, very difficult experience involving interpersonal relationships.
Mistakes are made with great regularity in the way we interact with people through our lives. Just like in music, we are accumulating both 1s and 0s. The 1s are the interactions in which we brighten someone's day, make them feel valued and loved and trusted, or even when we help them to understand that they've made a mistake. The 0s are the times where people we care deeply about (or even strangers) respond to us with extreme hurt, surprise, anger, even disgust. Sadly, we have to have some 0s to find where the line is. Also, that line is in a different place with every person with whom we interact, just as that B-natural doesn't quite seem to work the same over every Dmin7 chord.
Plus, as anyone who saw "Inside Out" knows, most of our experiences involve a balance of both. I don't know what all this means, except that we never stop learning; about music, about our friends, about those we hold closest...it's an unending process. Sometimes it's painful, and sometimes it's beautiful...but it's all we have. Embrace the journey.
I live in North Carolina. It's my home. It's where my children have been raised, and where I finally feel I have planted roots. Pretty late to have done that at 32 years old!
But, it's my second "home". The first one is a beautiful place, full of beautiful people: Iowa.
I'm 43 now, and haven't really resided in the Tall Corn State since I was 21 - over half my life ago. In spite of that and of my extreme love of North Carolina, Iowa still calls to me. It made me who I am, and for that I am forever indebted.
It is within that context that I planned a tour of Iowa with my band; indeed, three of my closest friends. We've traveled all over together making music, teaching, and enjoying each other's company. We've been to some beautiful and inspiring places (the one in my background photo is a testament to that), but the trip that has meant the most to me was this one, because it was about who I am. I don't mean that in a selfish way. It's about Brandon, Steve, and Dan getting to know a much deeper version of me - one that can only be reached by seeing my boyhood home, meeting my teachers and old friends, and hearing stories that would've had no context to them had we not actually been there.
I woke up bright and early the first day to go talk with Bob Stewart at KCCK. KCCK was a huge part of my life as a kid, and I spent many hours of discovery as one of the only teenagers in the world listening to jazz radio :) For there to be a full-time jazz radio station anywhere in the country is a rarity anymore, so for one to be in my home state is a point of pride. It was a bit surreal to be interviewed there, but I really enjoyed it, and Bob made it very easy as all great interviewers do (I'm looking at you, David Ford!). After finishing up with Bob, I had a nice talk off-air with both Dennis Green and Hollis Monroe about our mutual admiration of Arthur C. Clarke and Marvel Comics, respectively. What a treasure to eastern Iowa. Plus, the receptionist is a BCHS alum! (I'm so sorry I have forgotten your name!)
After a short detour to show my hometown of Newhall and the house I grew up in to the guys, we started out the trip in Des Moines at Drake University, in the care of my friend Jim Romain. Jim is a truly world-class saxophonist (classical and jazz - he'll cut you both ways), a great teacher and, most importantly, a great guy. I would've liked to have spent a whole day with him and his students, as he and Andy Classen have done such great work there. And the Patty and Fred Turner Jazz Center was a revelation - what an amazing philanthropic gift (any UNCG alums out there...please hear that!). I had lunch with one of my oldest friends (4th grade?) - Angie. Every time I see her, it's like it's only been a week. In attendance for our performance that night were Benton Community HS alums (Melanie Keiper - who has led a fascinating life, Chris Moeller - who grew up around the corner from me with his identical twin Aaron, Rob Semelroth), Luther friends (Eric and Bobbye Schubert), and our peers from the Des Moines jazz community (Bill Bergren). It was a nice way to start the trip, and we executed the music quite well. After a really nice late-night hang and catch-up with Melanie (pretty sure we haven't seen each other since May '91), we tripped back to Cedar Rapids in order to shorten the commute for our early morning.
After a refreshing (LIE) 2-1/2 hours of sleep, the guys and I went to my alma mater, Benton Community High School. It's a truly Iowa school, where you can throw a rock from the parking lot and it lands in a cornfield. It's hard to fathom that I left there over 25 years ago: The amount of time it takes a person to grow from infancy to real, actual adulthood. When that other George Bush was president, and we'd only started talking about people named Clinton. So much of my life has changed over those years, yet it all started here...at home. Marching band practices in the dark (and COLD). Musicals. Choirs. Plays. Oh yeah, and regular classes :) Ever since I left, I've craved to go and give back; to let other kids like me know that it's OK, you can find your place in the world. So many teachers invested themselves in my future here, a future they never assume to have a part in - Deerberg, Howell, Niebuhr, Schmidt, Nottger, Conrad, Price...so many people gave of themselves for my future (or ATTEMPTED to give, I was stubborn). What an amazing thing a teacher can be!
Due to an unbelievably cosmic twist of fate, the band director at BC is Dr. Brad Williamson, someone with whom I have tons of connections, but from 3 states away in Ohio. What a bizarre thing. Brad has been building on the successes of his predecessor, my man Scott Weber, and music is flourishing at the old alma mater. Along with John Hayden and his juggernaut choral program, the arts have never been stronger there...I wish I could be 17 again!
I spent so, so many hours in that auditorium as a kid, and it felt not the least bit odd to be there making music again. In fact, I felt like I actually belonged there. (It helped that the acoustics of the room are now A-MAZ-ING...I'm shipping it to UNCG). Working with those young people, who were so like me a quarter century ago, was fun and inspiring. They threw themselves into everything we gave them in a very spiritual way. I only hope that they continue to work on what we "assigned" them. They acquitted themselves brilliantly on the the concert, with precious little time to prepare. Kudos to Brad, but as we all know, the students had to shoulder the musical load. So proud of them.
So many dear old (VERY old) friends attended the concert: Jeremy and Tori, Matt, Brian, L.J. (who took INCREDIBLE pictures), Ward, Angie, Kelly, Heather, Greg, Todd and Tom, Tracy (whose daughter is going to be a MONSTER saxophone player), Aaron (the OTHER twin!), gosh...I'm sure I've forgotten someone. It was the best kind of reunion...the one where all the people who were directly involved in your life, regardless of age, were there to support and enjoy one another's company once again. My former teachers Mrs. Deerberg and Mrs. Nottger were there....both of them English teachers, which made the literary content of my music so much more appropriate! And Dr. Zittergruen, who has so many more important things to be doing, joined us off and on throughout the day, and came to the evening concert...that's dedication. To top it off, Mom flew out - probably just to see her friends :) - and Marc and Michelle were there. To say it was the makings of a beautiful memory is a gross understatement.
We wrapped up the trip with a two-day stay at Luther College in Decorah, which is where I spent my first 3 years of college, met my wife, and began to truly study jazz. Luther's opportunities for young jazz musicians have undergone an even greater transformation than the music offerings at BCHS. My old friend Tony Guzman and new friend Jon Ailabouni have made many significant changes there, and no doubt more are to come. And for the last few years, my first jazz teacher Lynne Hart has been teaching the saxophone studio there...good things all around! We worked with some very promising young players who were hungry for whatever we brought them. I've always maintained that leaving Luther was one of the hardest decisions I ever made. Had the jazz experience at Luther been like it is now, I'm certain I would've never left. Several special old friends came to visit - Jen, Becky, Erin, Eric, John and Kathy, Dr. Judisch, and especially my old teachers Lynne Hart (and Pete!) and Mike Chesher. And I had to offer up my song "Years From Now, When I Am Gone" to the late Dr. Doug Diamond, who had a profound effect on me (I addressed him and his legacy in a previous post). Oh, and Steve and Maria Smith ruined my visit once again by reminding how deeply Carmen and I miss them. Sad face...for real. It was an honor to share our music with all of them, and to engage the Luther community with masterclasses and a jam session the following day. Decorah, to me, is the perfect midwestern town: simplicity, peace, kindness, and the arts. What else do you need?
I talk to my students a lot about jazz (really, ALL art) being by, of, and for a community; that there will be universality, but also individuality. I saw that aspect of community in full relief at Drake, BC, and Luther. From Drake's beautiful and jealousy-inducing jazz performance space; to BCHS's go-get-em spirit, which featured students exhausted from a long, successful marching season going all-out to learn music to play with us; to the indomitable spirit and energy at Luther College, a small, private, liberal arts college that musically competes with many strong conservatories.
The most powerful part of the experience was the opportunity to share it with my friends, and through music. I am constantly humbled not only by the talents of Brandon, Dan, and Steve, but also by their dedication to the music I choose to present to the world. They have truly brought my compositions to life, indeed inspired some of them, and have done so along the way with very little in tangible compensation. I am truly indebted to them, and I love them. Music, and life, is a series of chance meetings and encounters which send you in unplanned directions and empower you in unexpected ways.
Example: Music inspired me in high school, which sent me to Luther, where I met Carmen, then jazz pulled me to North Texas, then Carmen pulled me to Columbus, OH where I met Branford Marsalis, who sent me the flyer for the UNCG job, where the contact was Steve Haines (who I'd met at North Texas). Imagine how unlikely any of those things would be had there been a break in the chain. As such, without that chain, I'd have been standing alone with my tears at my pop's grave in Monticello last week. Instead, I had my band with me, by my side...a big-hearted Canadian on which to lean.
Music, love, and community....you dig?
Doug Diamond was my teacher. But not in the way we generally perceive of the profession.
In my high school years, I used to attend the Dorian Summer Music Camps at Luther College. During those camps/concerts, I was always bemused by the behavior of the orchestra director. He would awkwardly, yet confidently, deliver the strangest banter from the stage. Sometimes, if the microphone was too low, he'd hunch over in an unbelievably clumsy way rather than simply raise the mike (and you wonder where my stage presence comes from?). The students would howl with laughter as he deadpanned, and they obviously adored him, as the hung on his every word.
When I arrived at Luther as a freshman, I was assigned to his 8am music theory class. He used to come in every day with a beer mug full of pale tea, that looked *exactly* like beer. One day, I just up and asked him, "are you drinking beer at 8am on a Monday?" which generated a donkey-style guffaw from him so jarring that it completely threw me off, then said, "Don't I wish", completely deadpan. Another time, I responded with some smart-ass reply to a question he posed, at which time he turned around, bent over, and pointed at his ass, saying, "Here it is, Eby. Kiss it!"
8am theory, indeed.
Yet Doug, along with another Luther professor named James Griesheimer, made me love classical music. It's impossible to overstate what a remarkable transformation that was. I was stubborn about music (this is where you say "was?"). The only music for me was jazz. Classical music was predictable. Boring. Uptight. And the producers of the music exhibited all of those qualities, too. Doug changed that wrong-headed perception, but only a fraction of that was in the classroom.
Once I had moved on from his class, I would pass him occasionally in the hall, but he would always be walking somewhere with his "intently walking so as to not have to take notice of you" walk. At the point where Carmen and I started dating, she had been playing principal clarinet in his orchestra for a couple of years. He was her first real champion. (Man, did he love her sound. There are tears in my eyes for her right now, because I know how much that support meant to her.) Anyway, she started bringing me to his office to hang out. In those visits, he'd talk music, and phrasing, and composing, and history, and musicians, even campy novelty music...all of it through a cigarette-smoke filled haze (I never did like that...), and frequently with that donkey-laugh I mentioned. Then, Carmen would get out her clarinet, so they could work on the phrasing of something they were doing in orchestra, Doug at the piano, sometimes leading, sometimes following Carmen. It was always so simple, yet so deeply musical. His door was always open...I learned that entirely from him.
Over the years after we, and then he, left Luther, we stayed in touch, and kept up on each other's doings. We last saw him when Spenser was very small, so nearly 14 years ago. Phone and email correspondences grew more spotty as the years went by, but that was actually part of the charm. There were lots of promises of calls...
Here is my last e-mail chain with him. It's not redacted in any way...this was the full content of the messages:
Chad (4/26/14) - Hello
Doug (4/26/14) - Hello back
Doug (4/26/14) - Long time, no talkee. Are we well?
Chad (4/26/14) - Call this number and find out (Carmen's #)
Doug (4/26/14) - I can do that. But not tonight. When tomorrow evening works?
Chad (4/26/14) - After 5.
REALLY PREGNANT PAUSE...NO CALL
Chad (7/24/15) - After 5...years?
Doug (8/31/15) - Give or take. Who's counting?
Chad (9/1/15) - We are
Chad (9/1/15) - I'm not sure how many you have left.
Doug (9/1/15) - And you get that from my hair or my teeth?
Man, he was dry and funny. There was no call.
When you begin teaching, you never know how much you can affect someone's life, or who those people might be. Or at least, I didn't. It could be anyone.
Doug: Carmen and I are going to miss you, and we love you. I bet that sentiment makes you want to throw up, but it's true. Thank you for everything you gave us, out of nothing more than the goodness of your heart, and your desire to share what music meant to you with others.
While riding my bike the other day, I was thinking about the passing of the great Joe Temperley, which drew my thoughts to the following:
There have been many instances where “being there” has changed my whole perspective on music: musical moments so memorable that I can’t imagine ever forgetting them.
Obviously, jazz exists on a nearly unattainably high plain on the thousands of recordings we revere. And we should revere them, as those are the mighty shoulders we stand on. We obviously can’t go hear Louis Armstrong anymore. But we can’t lose the value of now. And not just the music of the folks at the top of the notoriety pile - the 1%, if you will. I still remember with great clarity the night I watched my friend, colleague, and drummer Daniel Faust become the real deal, seemingly before my very eyes (ears?) in a collegiate big band performance several years back. My dear friend Doug Wamble singing his William Faulkner suite. My partner-in-crime Brandon Lee absolutely stupefying the rest of the Piedmont Triad Jazz Orchestra and our audience with a solo of such beauty and clarity on “Dolphin Dance” that it still brings tears to my eyes and mind to think of it over a year later. Those moments stick with me, and they aren’t attached to a famous last name (yet). Those moments are only with me because I was there.
And speaking of Joe Temperley and “being there”…
A few years back, I was in London as part of an educational group during Jazz at Lincoln Center’s annual residency at the Barbican Centre. It was a surreal experience for me, for although my relationship with Wynton went back several years, I was now a (small) part of “the team”. I hold the members of that musical organization in incredibly high esteem, and to be working alongside them, even in an educational capacity…needless to say, I felt very out of place. I came down for breakfast one morning, and found my colleague Seton Hawkins seated having breakfast with Mr. Temperley, who I had met in passing several years earlier, but who had no reason to remember the encounter (and didn’t J). I joined them. Mr. Temperley, by this point an octogenarian who had played with everyone and seen and done everything, welcomed me into their conversation. He was reveling Seton (and now me) with stories of how he met Charlie Parker, and working with Duke Ellington. Imagine that…straight out of a history book. I made it a point each day after that to set my alarm, so I could “be there” for breakfast, should Mr. Temperley be there.
In honesty, I don’t remember much of the content of those stories, because I was so dumbstruck by the cast of characters. But I do remember this – Mr. Temperley treated me, a stranger for all practical purposes, with a kindness and patience that I will never forget. I’m sure it was fun to talk about Bird and Duke (and God knows who all else), but when you’re 82 years old and first thing in the morning, and trying to enjoy your breakfast? Grace.
And it was all because I made a point of being there.