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?