Serendipity & Second Chances
The path leading me to the life of a jazz musician was not without its twists.
I always loved music, and began playing in middle school. But I dropped out of band in high school because I hated to march and didn’t see the point of playing yet another Percy Grainger air for wind ensemble. Rock & Roll was much more happening at the time, and saxophone didn’t enter into it unless your name was King Curtis. So I mothballed the horn for a while, hoping to return at some vague ‘later’.
After I graduated high school, I migrated to the Universe of Texas at Awesome; the horn remained mothballed. My official major at that time was Advertising, but in reality I was majoring in Armadillo World Headquarters, with a minor in OU Weekend. Footloose as I may have been in those days, at least I was not majoring in Plan 2, a degree path for the feckless multitudes who had not yet decided what they wanted to be when they grew up, but weren’t averse to spending their parents’ money while they sorted things out. They didn’t know it then, but Plan 2 was actually short for “Plan 2 B unemployed in four years.”
Anyway, my real schooling was taking place at the Armadillo, with a rotating cast of local professors: Balcones Fault, Greezy Wheels, 47 x Its Own Weight, The Point, Steam Heat, Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, and others. Then there was the adjunct faculty: Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, The Jam, Shawn Phillips, Frank Zappa & Captain Beefheart, Gentle Giant, John Cale, and many others who probably would still be stuck to those beer-soaked floors if they hadn’t been pried up gently by armies of groupies armed with warm soapy water.
Then came the night that changed my life forever: February 5th, 1978. I was not yet 22 years old.
One of my friends suggested we go to the AWHQ to check out this sax player named Phil Woods, a new name to me. Like many of my generation, I had gotten my feet wet with the Gateway Drug of Jazz Fusion–Return To Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra–and was only just beginning to dabble in Monk and Horace Silver. But Woods was not yet on my radar screen. Well, why not?
That night, I received The Word. Woods came onstage in his leather cap and proceeded to lay down some of the most blistering bebop I had ever experienced. Then he came back with a ballad to make the angels weep. Next was a hoary old show tune called Cheek to Cheek, lifted to the heights of delirium by a take-no-prisoners breakneck tempo. Through it all, his band cooked right alongside him with a degree of skill and cohesion I never knew possible. I found out later that band was Phil’s steady unit of Mike Melillo on piano, Steve Gilmore on bass, and Bill Goodwin on drums.
I listened, mouth agape. I had never heard live, improvised music with such drive and sheer energy, and yet such a high degree of precision. While listening, I was filled with equal parts joy and despair–because as sublime as it was, I couldn’t really appreciate it. I simply didn’t have the ears for it. Notes and riffs were piling up like snowdrifts, and I had no shovel. This troubled me more than I can express.
After that concert, I pulled out the horn and put away the Traffic mono-chord jams I had been diddling around with. As they say, I started to ‘get serious’.
I began building bebop chops working out of the Charlie Parker Omnibook. Hard as that was, it was no comparison to a book of Phil Woods transcriptions I took on a year or so later. After much hard work, I could play most of the notes, but couldn’t capture the mood of Woods’ growling, gutsy sound. Then again, people spend their entire careers unable to capture a sound like that. The late great Tony Campise is one of the few who did.
Fast forward to 1986. By then I had trod my share of bandstands and was completing a Masters in Jazz Performance at the University of North Texas (school motto: You’ll never be in the 1:00, you shmuck. Don’t even try. None of us are leaving here, ever). I had taken some time off to visit a friend in California who was a jazz record collector. Yes, such people exist. This was the kind of guy who owned forty Sonny Stitt records, half of them Japanese imports on virgin leopard-print vinyl. At that time, he was also part owner of a record store, which is kind of like a junkie owning a poppy farm. Maybe not the greatest idea?
Anyway, he made the kind offer of selling me whatever I wanted at his cost. I was pawing through the CD’s in search of some new sounds when I ran across The Phil Woods Quartet, Volume One on an obscure label called Clean Cuts. Glancing at the liner notes on the back, I saw that it was recorded live at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin TX. I felt my palms begin to sweat. This was it. I was at this show, and unknown to me it had been preserved and released. Now I was holding it in my hand.
I scanned the track titles, among them Bloomdido by Charlie Parker, Along Came Betty by Benny Golson, and Hallucinations by Bud Powell. All well-known bop titles, but there was something familiar about that particular grouping…what was it? Suddenly it dawned on me. Not only had I been at this show, but I had spent the better part of the last five years shedding transcriptions of the solos recorded that night. But that’s too large a coincidence, right? In a fog of anticipation, I found my way to a listening station and feverishly clomped the headphones around my ears, punching up Along Came Betty.
It was true. I had been schooling myself on this solo for the past five years. In May of 1979, I had been in the same room as Phil as he gave birth to it. When all I could do was let the sound wash over my neophyte ears and spill onto the sticky floors of the AWHQ, marveled at, grasped at in vain.
Next time someone tells you there are no second chances in life…don’t you believe it.