Musical Debut — A New Horizon

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.)


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.


  1. Music is a eth­i­cal law. It gives soul to the uni­verse, wings to the intel­lect, flight to the imag­i­na­tion, and appeal and gai­ety to life and to every­thing.

  2. Jazz is a great form of music for any­one. It seems as if you have grown a lot in music. Con­grat­u­la­tions. Great blog you have.

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