Dal Segno Award Speech

Hi. First of all, thanks to my friend Eric Schneider for his kind words. And thanks to the Dal Segno Club for holding this wonderful gathering and for coming up with the wacky notion to include me as one this year’s honorees. It’s a fairly surreal experience standing here before you, but I gratefully accept this award because (in the words of The Honeymooners’ immortal Ralph Kramden) “I am HUMBLE”.

You know, my life in Chicago can be viewed in two parts: When I went away to college after having grown up on the tough streets of Southeastern Lake County (Highland Park), I didn’t have a whole lot of experience as a professional musician. When I moved back eighteen years later (not all of that was as a student) with my BM in my suitcase (that’s a college degree), I really didn’t know any local musicians; all I had to work from was a list of players that I had collected from my colleagues in NYC, from which I dutifully began making cold calls upon our arrival in 1993.

There were several factors that made me want to move back to my hometown: One was to be closer to my siblings Barb and Dan (sitting right over there) so that my kids could grow up with their cousins; another was to get a fresh start musically by (hopefully) being a somewhat bigger fish in a smaller pond. The reason is not–(I repeat) NOT–due to what I have occasionally told a few unsuspecting questioners over the years: that I killed a guy. In any event, I’m truly grateful to my wonderful wife Mariana (acknowledge) for agreeing to move to a town so far from the ocean.

I was thrilled to discover an upgrade in our quality of life shortly after arriving here: an affordable and beautiful house with a big yard in a suburb that’s a 20-minute drive to the Loop; walkable to the train and walkable to all three of our kids’ schools that are in a great public school system. These are things that don’t really exist in NYC. And it’s funny: I used to hear “Ooh; you’re one of those New York musicians”, like it was some kind of big deal. I wanted to say “Don’t you know that there are more mediocre musicians in NYC than in any other place in the world?”….but I held my tongue and milked this surprising gravitas for all it was worth. One major professional difference: In NYC, three fingers up means three flats instead of sharps. It took me several years to make that adjustment, and I apologize to anyone who may have heard me turn a Gershwin or Motown tune into a tribute to Igor Stravinsky.

Scanning your roster of past honorees, it strikes me just how many truly great players have called Chicago home, and that I’ve had the great fortune to have played with a great many of them. I feel especially lucky to have crossed paths with some true local legends in the twilight of their career: Franz Jackson, Von Freeman, Ron Kolber, Wayne Jones, Eddie Johnson, Jim Beebe, Truck Parham and Johnny Frigo.

And so, for the last twenty years, I’ve the privilege of making music in a variety of settings: clubs, concerts, orchestra pits, teaching studios, recording studios; from soup to nuts, and certainly no shortage of nuts. Mariana would be happy to tell you that I have rarely passed up ANY kind of gig for which I’m available, and I suppose that’s true. But the fact is that I always look forward to learning or sharing something about music, and I feel more at home on the bandstand than practically anywhere else. I’m always flattered and pleasantly surprised when someone tells me that they’ve enjoyed hearing me play, because here’s a selfish little secret: I’m the one who is getting the most pleasure out of the music-making. Call me naive, but I believe deep down that music gets us closer to solving the mysteries of the universe and also to settling man-made conflict. Gee, that didn’t sound too pompous, did it? And the fact remains that I feel so blessed to be able to do what I love for a living. Ever since I was twelve years old, when that nice lady handed me three crisp five-dollar bills for playing at her party, I’m still fairly amazed that people want to give me money for playing the piano.

While we’re on the subject of music-making, we’re all here today because we care deeply about music and its performance. So it’s up to each of us to maximize the opportunities for amateurs and professionals alike, and especially for all of the talented musicians that are emerging from our schools every year. And we need to minimize the notion that pre-recorded music is an acceptable substitute for live music, whether it’s in a theater pit, a jobbing band, in concert, or in countless other venues into which this nasty trend has sunk its claws.

I’m sensing the guy with the hook, so maybe that’s enough soap-boxing and pontificating. It’s truly an honor to be acknowledged today along with a couple of amazing musicians like Mark and Rachel, so thanks again, and enjoy the rest of the afternoon.

Sermonette

If you’ll indulge me in a brief follow-up about Rob Amster:

I played a gig last night with a great band called the Fat Babies. It’s a 7-piece group that plays jazz from the Twenties and Thirties, and we were playing at the Green Mill. That’s the club where Rob played hundreds of times, with bands led by Kurt Elling, Ed Peterson and many others. And it occurred to me that Rob (when he didn’t call me Jerry) used to call me (and a lot of others, I’m guessing) Buddy all the time. I can recall answering his phone calls, to be greeted with “Hey, Buddy”.

So, when it came time for me to play a solo piano feature with the Fat Babies at the Green Mill last night, an actual good idea popped into my head: I played the 1922 tune “My Buddy”. Great song: check out Jimmy Rowles playing and singing it.

That was for you, Rob. Buddy.

Carpe Requiem.

On the untimely passing of Rob Amster

Here are some random thoughts on bassist Rob Amster, who passed away last week. It was far too soon. I’m not an expert on addiction, alcoholism or mental illness, nor did I have a lot of dealings with Rob in those areas, so I’m going to try and reflect on the guy that I want to remember.

Somber Rat. That was Rob’s email address. It was a long time before I realized that Somber Rat is an anagram of Rob Amster. That was embarrassing, because I’m into anagrams; take it from a Jerky He-Man.

In thinking ahead, much of what I write may give the impression that I thought Rob was an asshole. Nothing could be further from the truth; I was extremely fond of him. He just never had much of an edit button, so he could come off as a bit abrasive at times. He was the wrong guy to be around if you weren’t prepared to hear the truth. And, although I liked Rob a lot, we never really hung out socially. But that’s not a reflection on him; there are very few musicians that I consider to be my friends. And that’s kind of a weird thing: the bond created between musicians can be as strong as any bond I can think of. You share the same goals, you  have each other’s back and there’s a lot of humor flying around despite the seriousness of the endeavor. For me, that’s plenty. The fact that I don’t generally hang out with musicians outside the workplace doesn’t mean that I don’t love them dearly. And I loved Rob Amster dearly.

Not that he made it easy. As I recall, our very first encounter was on a corporate gig shortly after I moved to Chicago in 1993. Never one to keep up with the latest gear, I dutifully began setting up my trusty electric keyboard. Rob took one look at it and burst out with that laugh of his that came all the way from his toes. “Dude! A DX-7! That is such an Eighties instrument!” I responded in kind with some playful banter, but deep down was thinking, “Okay, you’re kind of a dick, huh?”

About a year later, after we’d worked together a fair amount, we found ourselves on a wedding gig together. I’ve never claimed to be the greatest rock and roll piano player, and I was having trouble hearing a particular chord on a Rolling Stones tune, so Rob was able to help me out with it halfway through. On the break (wedding gigs had breaks in those days), Rob walked up to me, his knees buckling from his laughter (he was the funniest guy he knew), and said “Dude! You can hear all this super heavy shit, and you couldn’t hear the chord on that tune? It was the FOUR chord! The fucking FOUR chord!” This was followed by more convulsive laughter. I responded with (yes) some playful banter, but deep down was thinking, “Okay, at least you couched it into a left-handed  compliment, but I still think you’re kind of a dick.”

During the fifteen (or thereabouts) years that we worked together, Rob and I would encounter each other on jazz gigs, recordings, concerts, bar mitvahs….you name it. And I came to realize that he was a PHENOMENAL bass player. He seemed to have no technical weaknesses on his instrument, and I’m still blown away by some of his stuff on the recordings we made. And he was a PHENOMENAL musician, too. He had a deep understanding of rhythm, harmony and melody, and always made well-informed choices. Musically speaking, there should never have been a reason why I wouldn’t call him for a gig. But sometimes I’d call someone else because I didn’t want to worry about Rob showing up under-dressed or that he’d get into an argument with the staff.

There’s a third quality about Rob (aside from his technical prowess and musical intelligence) that may have proven to be a double-edged sword: He cared so deeply about the music that he set the bar extremely high, and could get dark if things didn’t meet his standards. I hate to say it, but, as much as I loved playing with him, I would occasionally let insecurity get the best of me and I’d play so as not to screw up (to avoid disappointing Rob), as opposed to just letting it fly, trusting that everyone will adjust to any potential road bumps. Rob wasn’t big on adjusting. But he gave each gig everything he could muster.

I felt like playing with Rob made me a better musician each and every time we went at it, and I was honored that he indicated similar sentiments to me. We had a great run at Andy’s, playing in Mike Smith’s band with Eric Montzka and Tito Carrillo (later with Ron Friedman). Despite (or perhaps because of) this profusion of strong personalities and opinions, the music was inspiring to be a part of, all the more so because we had the chance to do it every week, where I happily got my ass kicked each time. And I also came to realize that, despite Rob’s prowess, he understood the power of simple (yet urgent) quarter notes in the hands of a jazz bass player.

For my own selfish reasons, I’m sorry that Rob won’t be around because I was hoping to make music with him until we became a couple of drooling, shriveled-up, pitiful old farts.

Some people care too much; others, not enough. It’s tough to find the sweet spot.

The Hamlisch Maneuver

Several years ago, I found myself on a Holiday Pops concert with the wonderful Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, under the mighty baton of the late Marvin Hamlisch. Luckily, for all parties concerned, this concert took place quite a while before Marvin passed away. And, because Marvin played a few numbers, the piano was situated front and center, right next to the podium. Except for those few numbers, I was also situated front and center.

Now, Marvin was quite the showman. He was very quick-witted, and engaged in a lot of clever banter between songs. At one point, he started riffing on how Christmas was a much better holiday than Hanukkah, and it was going quite well until he decided to include me in his shtick.

He asked me which holiday I celebrated, and his eyes lit up when I indicated the Jewish one. “Tell me”, he asked, “What was the best Hanukkah present you ever got when you were growing up?” Putting that moment in super-slow motion, and with the benefit of hindsight, I would analyze my thought process thusly:

1. How can I respond in a manner that does justice to my true Smart Ass self?

2. Can I be a Smart Ass while keeping it Family-Friendly?

3. Someone once told me that the “K” sound is funny. Can I work that in?

Marvin stuck the mike in my face, and I looked at him for a couple seconds and then said, “Well I once got a canned ham.” It got quite a big laugh, and I heard Marvin mutter “Canned ham”, then I saw him quickly go dead behind the eyes. My response had proven to be the end of our interaction and the end of our potential comedy act, which I now picture to have been a combination of Ferrante & Teicher and Martin & Lewis.

Oh, well. That’s Show Biz.

Happy Hanukkah, everyone!

Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland

In 2003, I received a phone call from Marian McPartland inviting me to be a guest on her “Piano Jazz” radio show. I had gone to hear her play in Chicago the year before and was introduced to her in between sets. We chatted briefly, and a few weeks later I followed up by sending her one of my CDs, along with a note expressing an interest in being on her show. I can’t begin to guess how many notes and CDs she must have gotten over the years from folks with motives similar to mine, so I was completely floored by her call.

She had an eclectic mix of guests, ranging from the most famous to those occupying a quirky niche to others who were just starting out; from jazz pianists to jazz non-pianists to non-jazzers. That covers a lot of turf, so it’s safe to say that I fit in there somewhere. But I was just so darned flattered and tickled that she felt that I had something to offer to her show, and it gave me the chills thinking about all of the Jazz Deities with whom I now had something in common.

Marian was apologetic about the compensation that I’d be getting for my appearance. “It’s more of an honorarium, really. Maybe you don’t even want to do it”. I indicated that her offer was acceptable to me. Are you kidding? I would have paid my own way to New York and made a donation to her favorite charity for this opportunity, so I wasn’t about to haggle over nickels and dimes.

She was already in her eighties when I was on her show, so the conversation had a somewhat leisurely flow to it. This caught me off guard a bit, and, because I was so jacked up to be there, took some adjusting on my part. But she was a most gracious host, making me feel as  relaxed as the circumstances allowed. My only regret was that we didn’t get to hang out apart from the taping of the show, as I would have loved to have gotten to know her a bit better. I have no doubts that she had a million great stories. But, alas our brief encounter ended and I never saw her again.

I’ll put this out there: I’d say that, after Louis Armstrong, Marian was Jazz’s greatest ambassador. She knew how to make the music interesting to non-musicians and to new listeners without compromising any of its artistic integrity, and she had a long-running forum on which to do it. Oh, she was a great piano player, too.

I hope that you enjoy our meeting of the minds.

Jeremy Kahn; September, 2013