The Early Years - The Fifties and Sixties
I suppose this all started with my father giving me a ukulele when I was a boy. He thought my hands were too small for a guitar. That was the time of Arthur Godfrey and his ukulele. I couldn't relate. Needless to say, it sat in the corner of the room gathering dust. I never imagined that that little stringed instrument would come zooming to its present popularity. I suppose the uke ended up in some yard sale. I never saw it again.
In high school in East Greenwich, RI one of my friends asked if I wanted to play electric bass in his band. I said "I don't know how." He said "It's easy. I'll teach you." So I went out and got a Hagstrom I electric bass and a Sears Silvertone Twin Twelve amp. My mother said "I won't give this to you. But I will cosign for a loan at the bank." So I paid for it one payment at a time working the fountain at Gino's, the local drug store. The band, "The Clique", played the usual fare of "Louie, Louie", "Wipe Out" and "My Baby Does the Hanky Panky". I asked if I could sing a song. The band responded with "You Can't Sing!!" I said "Oh..."
The College Years - The Seventies and Early Eighties
In college at the University of Rhode Island I had this crappy old Harmony flat top guitar. I think you could pick one up for about $35. My brother-in-law gave it to me. Let's just say that music wasn't his strong suit. He tried playing the guitar. He tried playing the banjo. He finally settled on playing the record player. But that's OK. He had other fine qualities.
Anyway, the Harmony was this horrible sounding instrument with the action set so high as to lead to carpel tunnel syndrome to anyone who played it for any length of time. I persevered, however, learning the folk songs of the day as well as stuff I heard on the radio. I tried learning tunes by trying to match the chords I heard in my head with those I heard on the record. I wore out a lot of records. But it was fun and I learned a lot of tunes. With the encouragement of my friend Bake, I sang a lot more.
After finishing undergraduate school in Industrial Engineering I went to a series of job interviews set by a job counselor. After 3 interviews that went badly he called me in his office and asked me "What do you REALLY want to do with your life?" I said "I want to be an industrial engineer." He said "No, you don't. If you could do anything you wanted what would you do?" Nobody had ever really asked me that question. I hesitated just for a second and said "I'd want to work on a boat and play music in clubs." He said "Then you should do it." Nobody had ever given me permission to do exactly what I wanted. Shortly thereafter I got a job as purser and deck hand on the Block Island Boat out of Galilee, RI. Bachelor's degree be damned. With my first paycheck I bought my first real guitar with a little bit of soul - a mid-50's Gibson B25. Although it is not considered a valuable guitar it was MY guitar.
I went on to graduate school in ocean engineering at the University of Rhode Island. Within a month of starting school I scored a gig at a dumpy little bar called the Jamestown Inn. Big money! The gig paid $15 a night, beer and a bowl of soup. Sounded great. I cobbled together a sound system made up of stereo parts, an old Radio Shack mic and a mic stand jury-rigged from an old standing lamp. It sounded awful. The strange thing is I never experienced any stage fright. So that is how I paid my way through graduate school. I eventually got a sound system that was less horrible. I usually played 1 or 2 nights a week. In the summers, I did 6-7 nights a week when I could. It put food and beer on the table.
The Seattle Years - The Eighties and Nineties
After finishing my masters degree I drove out west to Seattle with a guitar, my records, my clothes and $500 in my pocket. I banged on doors until I got a job doing ocean engineering and oceanography in Washington and Alaska. By this time I had moved up to a Martin HD-28. It REALLY sounded like a guitar relative to my Gibson. But the career stuff stood front and center. I was doing 60-70 hours a week at my engineering to learn the craft. It was it was exhausting and soul-sucking.
One night I saw an ad for some people trying to form a neighborhood jazz band. I said "What the heck!" I called the number and talked to Mick, a friend to this day. I stepped into this crazy neighborhood band, the PNAZZ Band. It was a rhythm section, 3 singers, and a horn section, one of which was a violin - there were 10 of us. We played mostly jazz and swing chestnuts. My friend Howard had given me one of the first editions of the Real Book, a book of hand-enscribed jazz tunes - it set the stage. When I could squeeze in some time I would struggle with learning jazz chords on my flat top. Aside from my high school band it was my first introduction to a band setting and it was my first time reading from head charts. I was drowning and loving it. We played for freebee events, rummage sales and the like. Fun! We played together for 2 years and never got past learning about 10 or 12 songs. But it laid a foundation.
Eventually, the 10-person band took too much energy to sustain. So a few of us created another little band playing bluegrass-y and western swing tunes. Two guitars, mandolin and bass. The mandolin player dropped out and we picked up a the sax player, John, from the PNAZZ. The musical center moved towards swing and jazz. We had a swing fiddle for a a while, too. Great fun!
Moving through one of life's transitions I ended up taking a turn towards Cajun music. I was the guitar player and one of the singers playing traditional Cajun music singing everything in the French dialect of southern Louisiana. That was different. There were always dancers at every gig. Great feedback loop. The band lasted 4 years. I found myself looking for a different musical challenge. I turned back to jazz and swing
The 21st Century
Shortly after moving to Port Townsend, WA in 2004 I connected with a talented assortment of players. Assembling groups for playing at local venues was pretty seamless. There always seemed to be a bass player, drummer, a horn or reed player and a guitar player or pianist around to scare up a gig. I rounded out the mix as rhythm guitar player and lead singer. So I started working harder at putting my gig book together. Originally, we played quite a few of the old chestnuts. Eventually, more interesting and challenging tunes seeped into the mix. I was drawn to tunes that exhibited unique qualities including interesting melodic intervals, different time signatures, some foreign language tunes, some early jazz tunes, some blues, some bossa, a samba or two. You get the idea. If I didn't love the tune, I didn't do it. It just made sense to me.
The idea for a CD for some of my favorite tunes came to me one year at Puget Sound Guitar Workshop Winter Retreat in 2013. I went for a long walk with Julian Smedley, a superb violinist, session man and producer, to talk about the project. He had produced projects for CJ McDuffie and Cyd Smith with great results. So after laying out some guidelines we started planning the project with the idea of a full-on effort, not a quick in and out of the studio project. Practice, backing tracks, vocal overlay, instrumental overlay, mixing and mastering. After some bumps and bruises along the way the project was finally finished in the spring of 2015. Titled "Transition Point" it gets released on May 18th, 2015
Photo Courtesy of Al Bergstein, MountainStone Productions