A few years ago I saw the film Into the Wild, the true story about a young man searching for himself through a variety of on-the-road adventures, ultimately living ill-prepared off the land in Alaska and dying of starvation. What stands out in this production of the Jon Krakauer book by the same name, is the work by veteran actor Hal Holbrook. Holbrook is perhaps best known for his one-man show, Mark Twain Tonight. He has also appeared in countless TV shows and films, including All the President’s Men, in which he portrays “Deep Throat,” the man leaking information to Bob Woodward, the reporter whose investigations, along with Carl Bernstein, brought down President Nixon during Watergate.
There is a scene in Into The Wild that is played by Holbrook with such honesty it made me cry. In it Holbrook’s character tries to convince a young man to let him adopt him. It is a short scene, but in it Holbrook, the actor, brings so much of his heart and personal experience that it feels REAL. Not acted. It is rare when an artist can find the truth in any discipline this powerful. It made me realize that to develop this ability and to express it in our art is probably the highest manifestation of the work we do, whether we are actors, musicians, dancers or painters. But I feel this dedication is lacking in the work by many creative people. That is why I use this short scene as an example of how an artist can combine technical skill, personal experience and emotional expression to create something meaningful in their work.
As jazz musicians, we should be looking for ways to make our music engaging. I don’t mean selling out (to purposely make it accessible or popular). We should focus not on the goal to impress people, but to move them. Many musicians develop the technical skill to play, but it is rare that musicians are able to express something deeply spiritual and personal which truly engages their audience and the musicians around them.
Close to twenty years ago I had the great experience to work with the late Chico O’Farrill. (His son, Arturo, is a Grammy-winning composer and big band leader.) Here was a composer who had contributed important works that featured players like Charlie Parker. He had seen and heard it all. At some point during this week of rehearsals and concerts Wynton Marsalis asked Chico what has happened to jazz - why is it losing popularity? His answer (and I am paraphrasing) was that eighty percent of the musicians playing jazz today are satisfied to rehash what came before. They continue to speak the language with nothing really to say, and without the spirituality behind what our masters brought to their playing. I realized that was true. As I continued to listen to jazz improvisers (and reflect on my own contributions) I could understand he sentiment.
Ever since I read Holbrook’s autobiography I have wanted to see him perform his iconic show about Mark Twain but figured that would never happen. I mean, the man is now 92 years old. I can’t even imagine he is still performing. A couple years ago I wrote Holbrook’s manager expressing my appreciation for the actor and requesting to meet him, to have the opportunity to tell him how I felt and ask him about his creative process. I never heard back.
Last month I had a night off in Minneapolis (after a gig the night before with Kristen Lee Sergeant at Le Vieux Carré) and couldn’t believe my luck: performing a single engagement at Orchestra Hall was none other than Hal Holbrook doing Mark Twain Tonight. What?! I could not believe my luck. My friends Marsha and Jeremy Walker, with whom I was staying, happen to work for the venue and were able to get last minute tickets. Talk about the stars aligning!
After the show I went back stage with the hopes of meeting Mr. Holbrook. I stood in a short line of people with similar intentions (you needed approval by the hall to be able to be in this line). After a few minutes, here he came, still in his Mark Twain wig and makeup, his fake nose partially detached from his real one. He worked his way down the line saying hello, spending a couple minutes with each fan. Then it was my turn. I took advantage of this magical moment to express my appreciation for his work. This video caught that moment:
If jazz is losing it’s audience it is the responsibility of all of us to make the music engaging and continue to bring the kind of diligence to developing our craft that is clearly shown in the work of Hal Holbrook.
Christmas Memories, Part I
It’s no secret my father, Dick Nash, is a great trombonist. But less is known of his and my mother’s roles as civil rights activists. Through their associations with an organization called Operation Bootstrap, my family was introduced to a man who called himself Hakim Jamal (formerly Allen Donaldson). He was a disciple of Malcolm X, and became an active spokesman for the Nation of Islam and of Black Supremacy, groups that would refer to the white man as The Devil. You can read a little about Hakim Jamal here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hakim_Jamal.
In 1967, my parents got to know Jamal from seeing him at various civil rights meetings and fundraisers. When late December arrived, my mother invited Jamal and his family to come to our home and trim the Christmas tree with friends, a ritual very special to us. He said his family wouldn’t be interested. My mother snapped back, “Why don’t you ask them.” “OK, I will” was his response, sure they wouldn’t want to drive all the way from Compton to spend the evening in a white family’s home.
About three days later an envelope arrived in the mail with several letters, all handwritten by the Jamal children, saying “Yes, we want to come trim the tree with you.” My mother called Jamal’s bluff and won.
When the anticipated night finally arrived, my father made the climb up to the loft on a ladder that seemed to stretch upward for miles, a climb that took him to some magical place above the garage we kids were not allowed to go. This is where they kept all the Christmas decorations, and other magical things (we imagined).
When the boxes were brought to the living room, my mother would unpack the contents carefully and dust everything off. In these cartons were items that perhaps because they were only seen once a year, seemed so precious and valuable - glass balls of the most vibrant colors, ornaments handmade in elementary school by my parents, endless strands of lights and tinsel. My dad would ask one of us to help him identify the “duds” along the line of Christmas lights and we would carefully replace them.
Eventually everything would be organized and ready for THIS YEAR’S TREE, which was certainly the best one ever. My mom would continue preparing food and drinks, and we kids would wait impatiently for friends to arrive so we could start trimming.
When the Jamals’ car pulled in the driveway, the headlights swept across the floor-to-ceiling curtains, and our pet Mynah Bird barked like a dog (mimicking Lucky, our miniature poodle). The front door opened, and six people poured at different speeds into the house. There was one person missing: Jamal. He was a very stubborn man, and apparently had no intention of coming in to be part of our Christmas, just brought the family as per their wishes, and in keeping of his promise. He actually stayed out in the car the entire evening. Looking back, I wonder what was going through his head for those hours, while his family was in the “Devil’s” house.
During the months that followed, the Nashes and Jamals got very close, and that summer went on a week-long vacation to the Grand Canyon.
I think that Jamal’s softening happened for a couple reasons. One is that Malcolm X had left the Nation of Islam, disavowing racism, and Jamal followed suit. But I like to think the main reason is that he saw my parents for who there were: caring, giving people that embraced all into their lives. No hidden motives, just love. Once he felt that, he opened up to and trusted us.
To open your home is the true spirit of Christmas. The gifts are pretty nice, too.
• • • • •
Christmas Memories, Part II
Mr. Winter was the name of my junior high school band director, and although his name suggested something cool, he was anything but. He had a temper. And the way he dissipated this temper, which was easily aggravated by a room full of thirteen-year-olds and their benign disrespect, was to leave the band room and smoke a cigarette.
One day in early December we took advantage of his absence by passing a coffee can, collecting funds for his Christmas gift. This action was repeated several times over a week or so. When the clinking sounds of dimes, nickels and pennies hitting other dimes, nickels and pennies came to an end we new it was time to add up the booty. $16.34. Not bad.
My best friend Mike Lane and I were put in charge of acquiring the gift with this fortune. First stop: ask my dad for advice. “Cologne is always nice,” he said without much thought. “You’re not serious?” my mother snapped back, certain there was a more creative idea floating about.
“Hey,” my dad said, after giving it more thought, “why don’t we go down to Bob Stoller’s and see if he has anything lying around.” Bob was our very good friend - a brilliant sculptor, and card-carrying schizophrenic, whose Ventura Blvd. storefront gallery was a couple miles down the road.
We entered the gallery and Bob greeted us. The space was not large, but impressive with welded metal sculptures here and there on dark-stained wooden bases. The storefront was divided into three sections: the gallery, his living space (which was no more than a cot, hot plate, and chest of drawers), and workshop. The latter was the largest of the three sections, and clearly where he spend the most time.
“Hey, Bob, the kids collected some money for a gift for their band director at school and wondered of you had anything.” “Well, let’s see - how much did you collect?” I dumped the money on his desk. “Sixteen dollars and thirty-four cents,” I proudly reported. He looked down at the heap of coins, and back up at me. I figured the blank expression on his face was his attempt at veiling his overwhelming excitement. After a few seconds of thinking he said “Sure, I’ll do it. I’ll make something.” He told us to check back with him the following week.
More than a week had passed. It was now December 23rd, and my father decided it was time to call Bob. Bob had completely forgotten about the project, but promised he would have something by the next day and hung up. My father, sensing my disappointment, assured me Bob would pull it together.
Christmas Eve arrived. My father, brother and I were rehearsing the Christmas carols my dad cleverly arranged for our little trio, which possessed a range of strengths and weakness (mostly weaknesses). On this night, for the past couple years, we hopped around to households of various friends and neighbors. An important and well-anticipated stop on this year’s agenda was the house of none other than the hot-tempered Mr. Winter.
Bob Stoller called and said he would be right over - he had something for us. Bob also happened to be our flashlight holder when we performed our carols. He had originated and mastered a technique of holding three flashlights at the same time, equally illuminating the music on the metal folding music stands.
When Bob entered the house he looked stressed, excited and relieved all at the same time. With bags under his eyes, and a slight sweat covering his gray face, he produced his commission. Our jaws dropped and we gasped. Bob was holding the most beautiful creation: a conductor, complete with tails, in the throws of a passionate gesture. He had apparently been working all night on it, and was looking at us with a big grin, happy he didn’t disappoint us.
Later that night we quietly parked our car two houses down from Mr. Winter’s modest Valley ranch home and quickly set up our music stands. With the flashlights masterly focused, we began playing our first carol. After no more than ten seconds Mr. Winter and his wife opened the door and came out onto the porch, and listened intently to our concert. When we finished, they invited us into the house for a quick hot toddy. That’s when we made our presentation. I set the awkwardly wrapped package on his coffee table. “What is THIS?” he asked. “It’s a gift from the band,” I replied. “Open it.” “Now? In front of everybody?” He hesitated, and then just decided to go for it. Mr. Winter stared in disbelief upon seeing the art piece, and his eyes filled with water. In the three years I had been in the concert band, I had seen many of his expressions, but not the one we were witnessing at that moment.
About thirty years later, Bob Stoller was dying of cancer. I went to visit him at his little house (he had lost his gallery years before). He was in his bed, by himself, with the shades all pulled down. The air was stuffy, and smelled like cigarettes. We talked about art. I gave him a book I had put together of my young kids’ drawings. He looked at each very carefully. He then told me he was always looking for a childlike quality in his artwork.
“Hey Bob,” I said at a quiet moment. “Do you remember the time we came over and gave you sixteen dollars and thirty four cents, and you made that incredible sculpture for Mr. Winter? Well, that was was one of the most generous things I have ever seen.” Bob just laughed and said “Hell, you kidding - I needed the money.”
• • • • •
Christmas Memories, Part III
When I was six my father had the brilliant idea of introducing me to music by teaching me to play the trombone. I think this action may technically qualify as child abuse. I survived, but not without an incident that traumatized me for life.
Now, if any of you know how a trombone works (I had to be reminded of this once by sacbut specialist Ron Westray, but that’s another story) you will be cognizant of the fact that at age six there is no way to reach the bottom positions - sixth and seventh - without either being a contortionist, or letting go of the slide. This restriction made it difficult, but not impossible to play a few melodies, and with this knowledge my father prepared me for my first concert. This took place on Christmas Eve. The repertoire: the perennial classic “Jingle Bells.”
My dad had me practicing for several days leading up to the concert. When the big night finally arrived, the extended Nash family, the Persoffs, and several other close friends were spread around the living room on our eclectic collection of chairs and floor pillows. An announcement was made and I entered from the dining room. There was no opening act, no fanfare. (True art needs no ornamentation). The applause became more enthusiastic as the group caught sight of the skinny little blond kid trying to carry this awkward assemblage of pipes. Even though I was nervous, I am sure I had the intuitive understanding that no matter what I played they would like it. But this didn’t stop me from taking this concert very seriously, from grabbing it full on, from giving it my all.
I got right to it. I remembered the first seven notes were the same, an A, and I had to put the slide down a little from the top - “second position” in my newly acquired vernacular. After that I faltered: the next note was supposed to a C, but sounded more like a B. Then I lost confidence and clammed a note. From there it was down hill. I think what I eventually played sounded more like “Dradle, Dradle, Dradle” than “Jingle Bells.”
When the song was over and the last note finally petered out, my performance was greeted by a thunderous ovation. My intuitive understanding also told me they were probably all faking it, and I ran back to the dining room crying. My father caught up with me seconds before the trombone was to have found a new home on the grass, on the other side of the window (in a pool of broken glass). “That was great! Perfect!” he assured me.
Once my whimpers had subsided, and my shoulders had made their last up and down spasm, I braved the family and friends again and did my best to receive their accolades (whether authentic or not) and had some egg nog.
I am excited and (to be honest) a little nervous about an upcoming premier: Wynton Marsalis’ The Jungle. It has been written for a collaboration between the NY Philharmonic and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Performances are December 28th-30th and January 3rd.
Wynton is not famous for turning in his commissions ahead of time, and the past few weeks has been a very intense time for my brother. During our last couple tours all of Wynton’s free time was dedicated to getting The Jungle finished in time for it to be copied and delivered to the NY Phil. There were bets whether it would be finished in time. But the doubters have not been victorious.
Over the past few days, as the music was being finished and copied, the parts for us (the JLCO) have been uploaded to a file-sharing site, and I haven’t even had time to look at them yet. Backstage, during recent concerts at Rose Hall, Sherman Irby (our lead alto saxophonist), sitting at his computer in the dressing room, would say “hey, here is some new music - just came in. Oh my God, look at this piccolo part.” Intervalic jumps, complicated rhythms. It looks like we’re going to have some fun!
Wynton also does not have a reputation for writing simple stuff to play. Some of the most technically and conceptually difficult music I have ever played come from the pen of Mr. Marsalis. But I look forward to challenge. The end result is always worth the effort.
In the past, like for All Rise, or Swing Symphony, we have had several days to rehearse before bringing it to the stage. For The Jungle we have one day of rehearsal. December 27th. That’s it.
I am always proud to be a part of Wynton’s vision; honored to be included in the innovative sonic output of this very creative man.
I hope you have a chance to hear this music at it’s premier next week. For more info and tickets:
It’s been five years since I have been out to Matt Balitsaris’ wonderful studio in Pennsylvania, which he calls Maggie’s Farm (inspired, I believe, by the Bob Dylan song with the same name). This converted barn has been responsible for the recording of hundreds of wonderful albums, many released on Palmetto Records (the label Matt B owned for many years). I recorded five of my albums here (Still Evolved, La Espada de la Noche, In the Loop, The Mancini Project, The Creep) and several others by Ben Allison and The Herbie Nichols Project. Although Matt B sold Palmetto Records a few years ago, the studio is still active.
Drummer Matt Wilson and I have always had more fun playing duo than should be allowed. Our concert at Merkin Hall a few years ago was a combination of jazz, theater and comedy. (You can see a video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZ2uj8C09DA) The duo was also the subject of an infamous appearance one summer in a small venue in The Hamptons, a restaurant with a side room where they featured small group jazz on the weekends. When Matt Wilson was asked to perform a two-night stint at this out-of-the-way venue he thought it would be a good opportunity to revisit some of the recent duo explorations that had worked so well in concert.
Well, maybe what works on the stage doesn’t translate well to a place where people are sipping Chablis and eating crab cakes, trying to impress their dates, and hoping for a romantic setting to help solidify desired future evening’s events. Clearly the sounds piped in from the jazz room that night weren’t helping this goal to be achieved. Maybe it was the lack of chordal instruments, a requirement I learned later (when I released my piano-less quartet The Creep) was necessary to get your music played on the radio. Or maybe it was the piccolo/snare drum duet on Monk’s Four in One. Could also have been the kiddie toys Matt was playing into the mic while I blew on my sax neck. Not sure. But whatever the reason, the booking agent called Matt at the club and said that people were running out of there with their ears covered (they weren’t) and the owner had a headache (very possible).
Anyway, we weren’t asked to return the next night and schlepped back home with our instruments and tails between our legs. Maybe it was a triumph not a disaster. Don’t know.
But here, at Maggie’s Farm, Matt and I are now set up, ready to go. Matt is sequestered in the booth and I am in the large room, standing a few feet back from a vintage tube mic.
My reason for this session is threefold: first, I miss this studio, Matt Balitsaris and the beautiful country setting. Second, any opportunity to make music with Matt Wilson is always a blessing. Third, I have a specific project in mind, one that will be a challenge, but one I am excited about and ready to take on. It is based on the concept I used to compose the music for my Presidential Suite (which will be released this summer on Motéma). For this recording I transcribed the actual pitches of political speeches and then established thematic material, a context, and harmonic support to create the pieces. The process had me come up with musical themes and environments I would not have otherwise discovered.
My thought for recording duo with Matt Wilson is based on this concept. He and I will record two or three hours of completely improvised music and I will later transcribe it and compose music based on these improvisations. A kind of backward approach - the compositions come from the improvisations.
We got sounds and adjusted our headphone levels. I looked at the four instruments I had set up, ready - my alto sax, soprano sax clarinet, and flute - and grabbed the soprano. I turned to Matt, seeing him through the tiny window on the door leading to his booth. He smiled. We started playing.
I met Joe when I moved to New york in the late 1970s and played one of my first gigs with Chuck Isreals and the National Jazz Ensemble. Joe was playing baritone. He was really old. He was like in his forties.
Needless to say, at nineteen I was pretty green, and when we were rehearsing Duke's Ko-Ko, I was coming at it with this very bright, modern sound. After all, I was a musical product of the 70s, exposed to jazz-rock and fusion. Joe yelled at me in his thick Scottish accent: “Ya gotta play it with a dark sound. This is Duke Ellington.” Sal Nistico, playing tenor, even chimed in: “Yeah, man, ya gotta play it with respect.” I did try, but I thought these guys are old fashioned. I'm the new shit.
Chuck one night said to me “Do you recognize Joe's genius?” I didn't know how to answer that. I didn’t know how to answer it because I wasn’t capable of answering it. I still was drawn more to fast notes and phrases, things that hit you over the head, and less interested in melodies and spaces.
Within a few months Chuck closed down that band and moved Washington State to teach. I didn't see Joe much except on a few Bobby Rosengarden club dates. But I was growing up. I started to pay attention to the big, warm, fuzz sound emanating from Joe's vintage Conn baritone. I was starting to recognize Joe’s genius.
I few years later, probably in the early 90s, I ran into Joe at the musicians union. I had heard he was playing with Wynton Marsalis, someone I had always wanted to play with (but figured never would). I asked Joe how it was playing with Wynton and the band. His reply: “Wynton plays with such humanity.” It was such a beautiful answer for so many reasons. I had expected him to describe how Wynton runs the band, or give me some dirt. But Joe got right to the soul of the matter. That’s Joe. No BS, just pure soul.
Joe was a teacher. Not just in the sense of being in a classroom, but in the sense that he always said and played exactly what he felt and heard. He taught all of us how to find the meaning in the music.
There was a point the other night when Wynton Marsalis took his bow after we finished performing his Swing Symphony with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra when he looked around at the band and I could sense a strong wave of emotion. You could see it in his eyes - a deep sense of pride. Not the kind you might get from the standing ovation he was currently receiving, or the clear admiration from the members of the orchestra and conductor, But the kind you feel when you realize for the past 60 minutes your colleagues have just put 100% or their soul, ability and feeling into something you’ve created; made it come alive, jump off the score with humanity and love and expression.
I often feel the journey is the most important part of creation - the research, discovery, trust, instinct and problem solving that you go through when composing a piece of music. The performance has often felt like a smaller part of the overall experience, that the deepest part of the experience came from the creation not the performance. At times the latter it even felt anti-climactic. All that work and it was over in a flash. But in that moment the other night, while Wynton looked around with a spiritual fullness at the band, I could feel that, especially when it involves so many people making their own personal journey through interpreting and giving themselves to the music, the performance can even surpass the creation.
When the right musicians bring their insight to your music it is a blessing. Having composers play your own works is a huge privilege - it’s as if they understand the journey you have gone through and become part of the composing process.
Jazz is such an amazing form of music because much of the accompaniment is improvised, so it’s different every time. Improvisers are often described as instantaneous composers.
In February, 1966, drummer Mel Lewis teamed up with trumpet player and composer Thad Jones to start a regular Monday night gig at the Village Vanguard in New York. 50 years later, with both Mel and Thad gone, the band (now called the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra) continues the tradition to this day. Realizing such a landmark has arrived, I have been reflecting on my own association with this great orchestra.
Mel and my father, trombonist Dick Nash, were roommates in the Tex Beneke Band in the early fifties. I had met Mel a couple times during family gatherings when I was a kid, too young to fully comprehend (or care) what a swinging drummer he was. When I moved to New York City at age eighteen, one of the first things I did was go to the Village Vanguard and catch the band. I was confused because I couldn’t figure out which one was Thad. I assumed he would be out front leading the band. My confusion was not without reason: Thad had just left the jazz orchestra and Mel was leading the band now.
Mel invited me to hang out at his Upper West Side apartment later that week. When I got there I sat in his living room flipping though old music magazines as he explained on phone in the other room to jazz writer Leonard Feather the “printable” version of how he and Thad had just split, how they felt it was time, that Thad had found a good opportunity in Denmark, that it was amicable, how and Mel was supportive of his decision. When he finished the official story he then said “Okay, off the record…here’s what really happened.” He went on to explain things that were a bit adult and complicated for me to make complete sense out, only hearing two out of every three words as I waited in the next room.
Mel finally ended the call and joined me in his very lived-in living room. He lit up a joint. I was too shy to say no, and in a foggy, self-conscious haze I listened to recordings he had made over the years. “Here’s another one I did with Marty Paich.” It felt like I was there for hours, hearing his stories and music. Mel Lewis wasn’t afraid to talk about himself.
He said I should come down and sub in the band. He let Dick Oatts know, and soon I was called to come in and sightread some of the most challenging saxophone music in existence, with its fast and technically difficult sax solis. Dick was very supportive. I continued to sub on and off for a couple years (the regular second alto player was Steve Coleman at the time).
In 1980 Mel and I performed together at a jazz festival in Orlando. My first record had just been released on Concord Jazz, and I started to get some work under my own name. The festival was set up sort of like mini jam sessions. For one set I played tenor in a band with Mel on drums and a very swinging older bass player who I hadn’t met. His commitment to swinging was so profound and at one point during the set I turned to him and asked his name. “Gorge Morrow” was his reply. THE George Morrow. The guy on the Clifford Brown/Max Roach record with Sonny Rollins, where they played the iconic version of Pent-up House. THAT George Morrow.
At the end of the gig Mel asked me to join his big band. There had just been an opening on one of the tenor chairs. I was ecstatic. Of course…duh, yes, I will join the band. But, when I got back to New York and talked with Dick Oatts he explained that he was moving Gary Pribeck over from baritone to the tenor chair to make room for the great Gary Smulyan to become part of the sax section on the baritone chair, something Dick had wanted to do for some time. Besides, he really liked my alto playing and was anticipating and opening in the alto chair at some point soon. And he was right. Steve left within the year and I joined the band, an association that would last ten years (1981-1991).
When I joined the band Bob Brookmeyer was the musical director. Mel brought him in a couple years after Thad’s departure, and the direction of the band’s music changed quite a bit during that short time. Bob had written modern, through-composed pieces featuring several of the key players in the band. Although the music was great - exploring new textures and harmonies - a few of the band members resisted the new direction, preferring the more traditional repertoire. I would see Bob standing in front of us, trying to engage the full support of the band, and over time feeling dejected. He finally quit. The band went back to playing primarily Thad’s music.
Mel encouraged us to write for the band. Earl McIntyre and Jim McNeely had already been contributing to the repertoire. Ed Neumeister, Kenny Werner and I were the next ones to jump in. Ironically, both Ed’s and Kenny’s writing style came strongly out of Brookmeyer’s.
When the band first performed in the mid-60s it featured groundbreaking arrangements, based in the Basie tradition, but expanding outward on every level. And there was something slightly exotic and appealing about the band’s presentation as well. The fact that one leader was black and the other white spoke very much about how music transcended the racism and segregation that was rampant at that time.
Thad’s and Bob Brookmeyer’s composing and arranging became the new standard and influenced so many great composers who came up after. My first arrangements were written for the band and it was a great opportunity to develop this skill in what was almost a workshop environment. We almost never rehearsed so if you brought down a new chart it was sightread at the club.
Extended solos were another thing that the band featured, as opposed to the short solos of the swing era. My Uncle, Ted Nash, was a featured soloist in the Les Brown Band in the late 1940s and had to get to his shit very quickly. In the Mel Lewis band we often were given several chorusses to develop our solos, for better of worse.
For ten years I sat between Dick Oatts and Joe Lovano, and I can think of no players on alto and tenor I like more. They both had a tremendous influence on the way I play.
I regret to not have had the chance to get to know Thad. I did get to know Mel quite well. He was optimistic, honest, always swinging, very dedicated to the band and the musicians in it. Sitting in the Village Vanguard kitchen between sets would often be an education. Mel would lean back in the creaky, vintage office chair and regale us with stories, sometime about the old days, sometimes about yesterday. Sometime he shared things that really should have been kept to himself. But it was always entertaining. He was like the eccentric uncle that you looked forward to seeing every Thanksgiving but glad you didn’t live with.
I am blessed to have had the opportunity to develop in so many ways as a result of being part of this wonderful orchestra.
Although I never met Frank Sinatra, he has been an important part of my family history: my uncle and namesake, Ted Nash, was Sinatra’s primary tenor sax soloist in the 50s; My father, Dick Nash, played the famous trombone solo on I’ve Got You Under My Skin; and my sister, Nikki, was on Sinatra’s touring production team in the 1980s. The closest I got to Frank was playing opposite him at Radio City Music Hall in 1985, with the Benny Goodman Band. (This was a few months before Benny’s death.)
On Saturday night I got a chance to recognize both this iconic singer and my family by performing three songs as part of the “Sinatra at 100” concert at Symphony Space. I was honored to be one of approximately 35 artists invited to pay tribute to Ol’ Blue Eyes, performing exactly 100 songs between us. (For a complete list of artists click here http://www.symphonyspace.org/event/8909/Music/frank-sinatra-at-100)
I chose three songs that (on the original recordings) featured a solo by my uncle: Lean Baby, A Million Dreams Ago, and Just One of Those Things. I wasn't familiar with the first two, and transcribed them from Frank's 1954 Capitol Records release, Swing Easy.
Hanging out in the green room prior to going out on stage for my fifteen minutes was an interesting experience, including a tap dancer stretching, an actress worrying about her makeup, and someone who was a friend of someone who asked me who I was and when I answered said "Oh, you're one of the cats!" I'm convinced she never had heard of me.
Finally, the cute clipboard-armed production girl came to get me, all professional smiles, and brought me backstage to be on deck as Russ Kassoff finished a feature with his trio. As I climbed the four steps to enter the backstage area, I passed by and quickly met Tony Danza, who exuded a genuine enthusiasm at our meeting, a nice energy I carried with me on stage.
The MC introduced me. The applause was generous as I found myself center stage facing face a very large house of Sinatra fans. Then it hit me: these people probably know everything about Frank’s music; every nuance of his recordings, every tempo and feel. Maybe they would be disappointed to hear renditions of their favorite songs played by a tenor saxophonist.
I turned to the band and counted off Lean Baby, which I arranged to have a group vocal intro - "Do, do do-do, do-oo-oo." The house trio, now in their sixth marathon hour, embraced this with surprising optimism and willingness. We swung our way through the opener then slowed things down for A Million Dreams Ago, a very sweet song I would definitely play again. We closed with an uptempo version of Just One of Those Things, which gave everyone in the rhythm section a little taste. We ended by vamping out, building the energy to high point and ending on a sharp bang.
In addition to the applause from the audience, I heard some strong “yeahs” from stage left, and as I walked off I saw it was Tony Danza, "Yeah, man, great. Great to meet you." Big smiles. He was introduced by the MC and a moment later was on stage, charming the audience just as much as he he charmed me during that short meeting.
My Uncle talks about Sinatra in his (as of yet unpublished) memoirs. Here is a short quote about the end of a party Sinatra had hired him to play at his house:
“After showing them all out, Frank came over as we were packing up and loosened his tie. (I think we were the only three people on earth to ever see Frank with a loosened tie.) I think one of his innermost desires was to prove to the world that a kid from Hoboken, New Jersey could do it with class - hence the tie. Not wanting the evening to end right there, he went into the kitchen, poured out three drinks, and handed me a ripe nectarine. For the next hour, the four of us sat around telling big band stories.”
I boarded our tour bus this morning at 6:00 and after getting settled in for a long ride I reflected on the past four days in Santa Fe. I am sure I was Native American in another life, because just looking at the turquoise jewelry, Navajo baskets and brightly colored, hand-woven rugs, makes me feel, strangely, at home.
It was very unusual to be in a city for four days with only one concert, and I took advantage of the free days by exploring this quaint, quirky town. I started by walking with no particular objective and found myself in a square eating Frito-pie from a street vendor. In a small paper bowl a man, perhaps 65, with leathery skin, emptied the contents of two small bags of Fritos™, added grilled chicken, then topped it with a creamy mix of roasted corn and green chili. Obscenely delicious, and I will probably never have it again.
Next stop was the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, where I enjoyed, in particular, the work of artist Meryl McMaster. (Her web site: http://merylmcmaster.com/home.html)
The next evening, after enduring (and, I admit, occasionally laughing at) twenty minutes of corny one-liners from Brad, the limo driver, photographer Frank Stewart (another one-liner specialist) and I were delivered at the beautiful home of Pam and Randall Onstead for a reception and fundraising event for JALC. When I walked in the front door I heard some very swinging flute and upon entering the room I saw it was Ali Ryerson, who I had met and heard for the first time almost fifteen years ago at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Joined by a local piano trio, she sounded great.
Wynton and drummer Ali Jackson arrived some time later. Wynton was invited to say a few words to the crowd of casually dressed, mostly wealthy New Mexicans. His fifteen minute speech was text book in how it expressed the importance of jazz, and culture in general, and the need to continue to support the many educational programs offered by Jazz at Lincoln Center, while embracing everyone in the room and making them feel part of something special. It was honest, insightful and artful.
Wynton sat in with Ali Ryerson and her group on some blues and later invited her to join us the next night on our concert, which she did, and sounded relaxed and expressive on my arrangement of Chick Corea’s Windows. It was a nice concert over all, presenting a real cross-section of the band’s diverse repertoire.
The final day of our residency in The Land of Enchantment was one of those special days, one that will go down in the history books. Victor Goines and I were picked up in front of the hotel by clarinetist Eddie Daniels, who moved to Santa Fe more than twenty years ago. Eddie, coming straight from his tennis lesson, drove us twenty minutes to his beautiful home where the three of us spent a solid two hours playing clarinets, alternatively comping for each other on the piano, playing tunes, trading fours, creating counter lines, and having absolute musical fun. We then repaired to his kitchen for some of his signature margaritas and were joined by his lovely wife, Mirabai, for a home-cooked meal.
Next stop: Midland, Texas.
From 1975-1977 I played lead alto with the Monterey Jazz Festival All-Star Band, performing in the hot, outdoor September sun on the Lyons Stage to a crowd of thousands of jazz fans. Yesterday, exactly forty years later, I returned to the Lyons Stage to play with the band, but this time as a guest soloist. Wynton and I joined the band playing “Una Muy Bonita,” an arrangement I did of the Ornette Coleman classic. Seeing and hearing these talented kids put their youthful spirit and energy into the music brought back so many memories and feelings from a time when my brain and soul soaked up everything musical around me.
And there was so much to soak up back in the mid-late 70s. Appearing at the Festival then were Bill Evans trio, Dizzy Gillespie Quartet, Horace Silver Quintet, The Heath Brothers, Joe Williams, Paul Desmond Quartet, not to mention the guests that played with the All-Star band: Clark Terry, Benny Golson, George Duke, Chuck Mangione and Pat Williams, to name a few.
After we finished Una Muy Bonita yesterday, I stayed back stage to listen to the rest of the group’s performance. I ran into Darlene Chan, the stage manager. We gave each other a hug and laughed, remarking on how we had first met forty years ago an that exact stage. She was stage manager then and I was an enthusiastic teenager. Darlene commented that we had come full-circle. I looked out at the band, still performing their set, and wondered which one of these youngsters would return to Monterey in forty years to be standing where I am now, thinking the same thing.
Here’s a video showing the highlights of the 1975 Festival.