Playing music has been part of my life since I was ten years old, nearly 17 years ago. For the first eight years I received piano lessons, as so many people do around that age. My first teacher (Carol Fern of Fenton, NC) gave me a good strict foundation and instilled good basics of theory and hand position. My second teacher was awful, I was only with her a couple months. My third teacher was Pam McNeil, who gave me what I really needed – not just knowledge of how to play music, but the passion to use that knowledge and seek more. Pam knew she wasn’t working with the next Horowitz or Ashkenazy, so she didn’t treat me like one. She allowed my interests to come out and always had my tastes in mind when she chose a new piece for me to learn, or asked what I wanted to learn. I give her a lot of credit for showing me how to love music, not just mechanically crank it out. I certainly wasn’t always a great student, but finding passion in music is invaluable. Thanks again, Pam, for everything.
But Pam stopped teaching and I entered the world of work and school and having a social life and music became less important for a while. My grandparents bought me a piano so I always had something to play, but I’m sorry to say there was a couple of years where I didn’t regularly knock the dust off of it. Around this time, a new guy moved to town. Now, you have to realize something here. I was 19 years old, living in a small town (pop. 1,800) and I didn’t know any one else like me. I was the weird kid who wore a fedora and an old topcoat and played the piano at the coffeehouse for people double and triple my age. Sure, my skills really didn’t surpass the level of a few parlor tricks and mangled Beethoven sonatas interspersed with Star Wars themes, but that was my shtick, and it was my shtick. One day I hear about this guy who moved into town, a few years older than me. I hear he wears a fedora and plays the meanest piano anyone had seen in this town. I’m thinking, “Who is this guy? This is my town and this is my shtick! How dare he!” After a couple weeks of reputation preceding him, I finally met him and saw him bust out a couple of tunes and whoa, I was blown away. I’d never seen anybody play piano like that. I think he played the Tiger Rag. His left hand was a blur and his right hand always knew where the melody should go. I immediately decided that we were going to be friends. That’s how I met Reese Gray.
He opened up the world of early jazz to me, got me listening to greats like Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, J. P. Johnson, King Oliver, Wingy Manone, Spike Jones, the Hoosier Hot-shots, so much more. And man, I really dug that music. Some people call it Dixieland, Hot Jazz, Traditional Jazz, or just Trad Jazz. It wasn’t like the elevator, Barnes & Noble jazz, the Kroger jazz or John Tesh that you hear so often but can’t whistle a single bar of after hearing it your whole life. It had power and youth, spontaneity and vigor, melancholy and passion, played by humans using all their humanity. But mostly, it was just fun. That’s how I got into 1920s jazz.
Reese got me off the sheet music, but first he found some written copies of tunes that he thought I should learn. W. C. Handy’s Memphis Blues was the first one he showed me. After I’d gotten the hang of the first couple sections I played it for him and he picked up his banjo-uke and tried to play along. Now, I’d never played ensemble in any fashion and had no clue how. I played a few bars and he stopped me. My rhythm was so bad he couldn’t play along with me at all. So he made me tap my feet when I played. Taught me the importance of rhythm. Pretty simple, but it was the missing element I needed. After a few years, my sense of rhythm increased, while I’m still working at it, I’m steady enough to play with folks. Meanwhile, instead of improvising being a side act, improvisation became the main attraction. That’s how I started to become an ear musician.
With my new skills, music became more and more important to me. I used it to purge emotions that I couldn’t talk about, or didn’t have anyone to talk to about. I used it when I needed a way to be angry but not destructive. I used it to purge unrequited passion. I used it to stimulate my mind. I used it to feed my inner human.
Or did the music use me? Psh — semantics.
Back in January, the Firecracker Jazz Band was in need of a piano player because Reese was leaving town for a couple months. With trepidation, I accepted. With about two weeks notice to learn 30 songs, I stepped up to the plate and practiced hard. After two rehearsals with the band I had my first real, professional experience playing music with them on Valentine’s Day, 2010. Took me almost 17 years to get there, but man was it worth it. I was nervous all that day, but as soon as I stepped up to the piano I knew I was where I was supposed to be. Since Valentine’s Day, I’ve played around 25 gigs total, and every one I play is a hell of a lot of fun, but playing May 14 at The Orange Peel was the highlight so far. The Peel was nearly packed as we opened for the very talented Carolina Chocolate Drops. The sound booth recorded our show. You can listen to it below. (Turn up your speakers – the gain is low.)[audio:Firecracker_OrangePeel.mp3]
Playing music has been the best, most fun, most fulfilling thing I’ve done with the energies of my life. Thanks to all who helped me along the way, who made me love the music, who vouched for an amateur, who believed that I had music in me that had to come out. And to those that didn’t believe in me, you too pushed me forward to prove you wrong.