Liner Notes From “Pepper Adams: Complete Compositions Vol.1, Jeremy Kahn Quartet” (2007)

More Pepper Please

My first recording as part of this Pepper Adams project was a trio date in June of 2006. It must have gone well enough, because producer Gary Carner enlisted me for a second go-round with the trio, this time adding baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan. It took place in June, 2007, in the same studio that had been the setting for our first session: Steve Ford’s great space on Clark Street in Chicago, with the mighty Grotrian piano.

Although I had one nagging concern about the project, I chose not to voice it: When putting players together who have never played with each other (Gary Smulyan had never played with Rob Amster, George Fludas, or me), a “slam dunk” is not guaranteed, no matter how impressive the pedigree of the musicians involved. It’s just not possible to predict if a good musical chemistry will materialize in the short time allotted, even if the Producer has decided that there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. Also, no matter how sterling someone’s reputation, there’s no way of knowing how he will respond to unfamiliar (and difficult, as it turned out for us) material.

Certainly, going into the project, my preconception of Gary Smulyan was that he is a great player. My extremely limited knowledge of him included the fact that he had been in the Mel Lewis Orchestra for many years, and that, in the small world of great baritone sax players, he was considered to be the Baddest of the Badasses, our generation’s Pepper Adams. I also assumed that Pepper was, undoubtedly, a big influence on his musical approach.

Although I had never played with Gary. I think we crossed paths once in Brooklyn in the early ’80s at an ongoing, all-musician softball game in Prospect Park. This was a great hang. Guys like Tim Horner, Ed Howard, the Eubanks brothers, Michael Weiss, and Branford Marsalis, to name a few, used to come and play ball. It was a rotating cast of characters, and we called ourselves the “Reeferdome All-Stars,” but I digress.

A couple of months after making the Pepper Adams trio recording in 2006, serendipity dictated that my path would cross with Gary’s. My family and I took a trip to New York City, and I went to hear my old buddy Tim Horner sit in with the Vanguard Orchestra. (This was what the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band was now called after Mel’s passing.) Who should be playing baritone sax? Why, it was none other than Gary Smulyan, playing some great stuff. (I recall a Pepper-like quote of “Harvest Moon” on the bridge of some Rhythm Changes.) And, since I had my bari-playing teenage son with me, I introduced myself to Gary on a break. He remembered me, and we had a real nice chat about many things, including the ongoing Pepper Adams recording project that was Gary Carner’s labor of love.

Little did Smulyan or I realize at the time that, within a few months, plans would be finalized for the two of us to embark on the next chapter of this Pepper-palooza. So, by early 2007, I needed to coordinate the music that had been chosen for this recording. Luckily, I had copies of the leadsheets that had been written out by Pepper (courtesy of Chicago bari sax guru Ron Kolber) for every tune except for one, a simple 12-bar blues.

These leadsheets were extremely helpful. I came to regard them as “Sacred Texts” that represented Pepper’s original intentions, no matter how much they may have evolved in various recordings. I arranged little intros and codas for the tunes, but, for the most part, I think that we played them fairly close to Pepper’s intentions. One exception, however, would be “Dylan’s Delight,” where, at the Producer’s request, I messed around with some (hopefully) Mingus-like sudden changes of time feel. But even that one was still pretty faithful to Pepper’s original concept, when it came to the solos. Okay, another exception would be “Diabolique II,” but that was just Rhythm Changes, performed as a duet for sax and drums, in which Gary and George simply let it fly in a minimally arranged fashion. These melodies that Pepper wrote were obviously best suited to be played by a baritone saxophonist, so it was great to have them in their “natural habitat.” Plus, I was just glad that someone other than me would be doing the bulk of the soloing.

At Gary Smulyan’s request, I was able to book a couple of nights for the quartet at Chicago’s coolest jazz venue, The Green Mill. The Garys arrived on Friday afternoon, and the weekend’s schedule shaped up thusly:

Friday: The Green Mill, 9pm-1:00am
Saturday: Recording, 1-5pm
Saturday: The Green Mill, 8pm-Midnight
Sunday: Recording, 3-11pm

That’s a whole lot of togetherness. I remember hoping, with great fervor, that Gary Smulyan would be 1) pleasant to be around, and 2) musically compatible with Rob, George, and myself. Otherwise, it could prove to be one seriously long-ass weekend.

I’m glad to report that the answer was a resounding “yes” to both. For our gigs at the Mill, we deliberately avoided any of the Pepper tunes, even though, on a certain level, it might have been helpful to use the gig as a rehearsal for the recording. But, truth be told, they were just too hard to risk playing them unrehearsed in front of a paying audience. Plus, Gary had just gotten over a three-week case of pneumonia, and he wanted to have fun playing with the band. Instead, we wisely chose a bunch of jazz standards with which we were all familiar and comfy. I think that this helped to quickly establish an underlying chemistry that enhanced this recording.

Regarding the tunes on this recording, or other Adams tunes I’ve played, Pepper Adams (like any jazz composer who is also a great instrumental soloist) clearly wrote his tunes as vehicles for himself; vehicles that would bring out the best in his playing. And these tunes are derived from the same genetic material as virtually all those that come from this post-Hard Bop style: a healthy mix of minor, major, and dominant chords, along with the usual ii-V-I chord progressions that can journey through a variety of tonal centers. Those of us who are given the challenge to create something beautiful from a piece of paper containing these kind of instructions eventually start to notice recognizable patterns after doing it a few hundred times, and these recognizable patterns create a comfort zone that enables the improviser to be relatively free from the burden of having to think too much. Why then, we all wondered in the recording studio, did Pepper’s tunes largely deny us that luxury? Our short answer: With the exception of the 12-bar blues and Rhythm Changes, while they did consist of the usual harmonic components, Adams’s unique combination of these components created a landscape that studiously avoided taking the soloist to the usual destinations, thereby making it difficult to ever really settle into a comfort zone. Because of this, I can honestly say that I’ve never played any tunes that were quite like Pepper’s.

If you feel you’ve achieved some degree of success in any new project, then the satisfaction you derive will be all the greater if it comes despite not having been allowed into your comfort zone during the process. We do hope that you appreciate our humble efforts at keeping these masterful works of the great Pepper Adams alive in these recordings by enjoying the contents herein.

Jeremy Kahn
January, 2008

Liner Notes from “Pepper Adams: “Complete Compositions Vol. 2, Jeremy Kahn Trio” (2006)

Pepper’s Take

Of all the horns that are associated with jazz, none occupies a more perplexing place than the baritone saxophone. It is essential to the success of a large ensemble: A big band without a great sax section is doomed to mediocrity, and a sax section without a great bari player can not be great. Would Ellington’s band have sounded the same without Harry Carney? How about Woody Herman without Serge Chaloff or Thad Jones-Mel Lewis without Pepper Adams?

Why is the list of baritone saxophonists who have made their mark as soloists so maddeningly short? Look at any grade school’s music program. You’ll find a million alto and tenor players, and very few bari players. Often as not, the school’s band director had to cajole an alto or tenor player into switching over just to have a complete section. (I know this first-hand. My 16 year old son is one such convert.) Bari players are greatly outnumbered by all the other instrumentalists. And, in a way, it’s understandable. Have you ever tried schlepping one of those beasts around?

Another reason might be that, unlike other horns that are typically heard in jazz, the majority of the baritone’s range lies outside the human voice. Perhaps that makes it less attractive to beginners. In any event, there have been just enough baritone sax soloists through the years to have left a legacy of great music. I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to play with one of them: Pepper Adams.

 

How Many Miles?

My gig with Pepper Adams is well chronicled in Gary Carner’s forthcoming book, Joy Road, but here are the Cliffs Notes. Tim Horner, the great drummer (and my old pal), took advantage of a connection that he had in Singapore (an ex-girlfriend, to be exact) and wangled a gig for us at a jazz festival there. It paid enough that he was able to hire a “name,” and Pepper was his choice.

Tim, bassist Ed Howard, and I were all in our twenties, and Pepper was in his fifties, in the twilight of his outstanding career. I oscillated between youthful arrogance and sheer terror at the prospect of sharing the stage with him. It was supposed to have been a tour, with dates in Japan and Indonesia, but they all evaporated, except the date in Singapore. It was a long way to go for one gig: about thirty-six hours from New York. For me, though, it was well worth it.

Pepper was friendly enough to his fresh-faced, smart-assed rhythm section, but he was borderline curmudgeonly when things displeased him. The two things that I remember were not being paid in American dollars before the gig, and a perceived dragging of the tempo on “A Child Is Born.” On the former, Adams threatened not to perform. On the latter, Adams pointedly suggested that the tempo stay where he had set it, before counting off the next tune.

Most of the concert, though, featured Pepper the Badass, the one we all know and love. He was tossing off some amazing, long lines of eighth and sixteenth notes, all with that in-your-face sound. The concert was a success. They loved Pepper. We made the tiresome journey home. I never saw Pepper again after that.

 

Harmonic Convergence

While living in Chicago, I’ve had the opportunity to play many times with Ron Kolber, the local patriarch of the bari sax. He enjoyed a close relationship with Pepper, and he very kindly offered to give me copies of about twenty Pepper tunes (written in Pepper’s own hand) that he had acquired. I accepted, of course, and gladly added them to my personal library. Every jazz player welcomes the chance to add to his repertoire a bunch of well-written tunes that are seldom played by anyone else.

Upon learning, right around this same time, that Gary Carner’s first book on Pepper was soon to be published, I passed this thought on to Gary: Why not promote the book by producing a CD of Pepper tunes, featuring someone very much along the lines of me? (That’s something else that every jazz player welcomes: The chance to go into a recording studio under the financial auspices of somebody else.) To my delight (and palpable surprise), he agreed to it. At Gary’s request, my contribution would be in the form of a piano trio.

 

Not a Drive through Wine Country

The next step in the process would be to familiarize myself with these tunes well enough so I could play them comfortably. Not to “dis” Pepper, but I found that they didn’t flow as easily as tunes by, say, Jerome Kern or Kenny Dorham or Antonio Carlos Jobim or Wayne Shorter, at least as far as my own facilities were concerned. I got the feeling that many of Adams’ melodies had arisen from lines that he might have played in a solo and was pleased enough to fashion a composition around, kind of like Charlie Parker in that way. And remember, Pepper was a quirky and idiosyncratic player, so it makes sense that his compositions would be too. This means that, as tricky as they are to play on the sax, they’re even trickier on other instruments (like piano, for example).

Aside from the melodies, the other important aspect for me to consider was the relative ease (or difficulty) with which the chord changes flow, because that’s what the soloist is dealing with during the bulk of the performance. Pepper’s chord changes, while obviously well thought out, take a lot of twists and turns that deliver you to some unexpected destinations. If you’re not comfortable playing rapidly changing chords in tonal centers less traveled, you’re going to be in deep “doo-doo.” Or, as Jaki Byard used to say, it will be obvious if “you’re lying on those changes.” Pepper’s tunes deserve better than to be skated through. They are masterworks, written by one of jazz’s greats, containing rock-solid ideas and a unique, lyrical individualism, albeit wrapped in challenging frameworks.

Challenges are good, though. That’s why Bird and Diz occasionally practiced out of oboe method books. Passages that are meant for other instruments will likely be awkward on your own, and successful navigation will make you a better player. Feeling somewhat secure on Pepper’s tunes was a gratifying feeling, because they were nothing if not challenging.

 

Nip/Tuck

Be careful what you wish for, right? My next step was to deal with this stack of Pepperabilia and come up with cogent, coherent, playable, and enjoyable piano trio arrangements. To my mind, there were a couple of fine lines to be negotiated. First, I knew I wasn’t re-inventing the wheel. I wanted to be faithful and respectful of Pepper’s intentions by playing his tunes fairly close to the spirit in which they were written.

There was one notable exception. “Doctor Deep,” a jazz waltz, gave me artistic constipation. I just couldn’t get anything going with it. I decided to give the tune a totally new set of chord changes, and morphed it into a McCoy Tyneresque Afro-Cuban kind of thing. Forgive me, O Ghost of Pepper’s Past.

I also didn’t want to be a rubber stamp of previously recorded versions. So I dressed them up with some new intros, tags, and background figures, and I also tweaked a few of Pepper’s original tempos. I wrote all of these arrangements over the course of a couple of weeks, while sitting in the orchestra pit, waiting for my steady gig of the Broadway musical “Wicked” to begin. The result filled my head with a very unusual combination of music. Pepper Adams and Stephen Schwartz: Now that’s an odd couple worthy of Neil Simon!

The other fine line was negotiating the writing versus “blowing” conundrum. You can listen to a jazz record with the sense that the music is so controlled and pre-determined, that any sense of unencumbered improvisation is all but snuffed out. The other end of the spectrum is when you sense that things are so loose, that it seems like no serious preparation has been given to the music. Either way results in an unsatisfying experience for the consumer. My solution was to make sure that the written aspects of the music stayed within my decided parameter of doing the dates without benefit of rehearsal. For this to succeed, it was crucial to have the right personnel.

 

Bring in the Stunt Rhythm Guys: Rob Amster and George Fludas

Before this session, the only time we had played together as a trio was when we were brought in to comprise the rhythm section on a horn player’s recording date. The challenging part was the fact that we were laying down tracks to some big band arrangements before the rest of the band was scheduled to record their parts. This was hard, because, without being able to hear what the fully realized music sounded like, we were asked to create something in a vacuum. I thought we did a good job with it, though, and I felt like the three of us established a strong musical rapport.

Drummer George Fludas won me over some years back when we were playing together at a jazz salon kind of thing. We’d play for some rich patron of the arts, then answer questions and expound on the state of jazz and the creative process, then play some more. Someone asked George what was his favorite music to play, and he responded, “Ballads.” It blew my mind to hear a drummer give that answer because ballads don’t present drummers the chance to show off all their party tricks. You’ll often see young drummers roll their eyes when a ballad is called, because they really don’t know what to do. George clearly does. He can play convincingly in all jazz styles because his musical vocabulary covers an astounding range. He has been asked to make music with Ray Brown, Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Cedar Walton, Milt Jackson, Eric Alexander, and Diana Krall, just to name a few. Mainly, though, he swings his ass off. We’re extremely lucky that he lives in Chicago, and I’m very grateful that he was available for this session. His presence added more than I can say.

Bassist Rob Amster and I have played a ton of gigs over the years, from wedding bands to jazz clubs. I remember that (shortly after I moved back to Chicago from New York in 1993) while we were setting up to play our first gig together, he took a look at my somewhat antiquated electric keyboard and started laughing at me. That was how Rob welcomed me to town, and it still gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling when I recall it. He is surely one of the only bassists to have played in Buddy Rich’s band to emerge un-fired. (Buddy went to The Big Crash Cymbal in the Sky before he had a chance.) Rob also had a stint in Maynard Ferguson’s band, but his main gig, over the last few years, has been to tour the world with vocalist Kurt Elling, an intensely creative endeavor.

Amster does what great bass players do: He can take the music to surprising and wonderful places, or he can just lay it down and make sure that things are simply locked in and swinging hard. He picks good spots for knowing what muscles to flex. He never mails it in, and he’s one of my all-time favorite bass players because he’s always reaching and challenging. I’ve done some of my best playing due to his on-the-bandstand motivating. I was thrilled to be able to record with him in this trio setting.

You will, however, find one non-trio tune on this recording. We invited tenor saxophonist Eric Schneider to join us on “Beaubien” as a special guest. Eric is one of a diminishing breed of sax players who can acknowledge in his playing that there was music before 1960. In fact, he can play in styles that go WAY back! But, whatever kind of music he’s playing, Eric’s flawless time, limitless ideas, and his ability to inject humor into his playing have always inspired me.

We’ve tried to do justice to Pepper Adams and his compositions. I hope that these tunes provide you with an enjoyable listening experience.

Jeremy Kahn
September, 2006

The Nutty Backstory

I’ve gotten a lot of very amused (and amusing) responses from the very short video attached here.

Let me take a minute to put it into context (Kahn text?):

I spent a summer playing in the band for a production of “The Wizard of Oz” at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. I bet you didn’t know that Shakespeare wrote that, did you now? Lauren Frost was our Dorothy; she had garnered a relatively high profile around that time by being on a Disney Channel TV show called “Even Steven”, and had also performed with Barbra Streisand (I think that she portrayed young Babs). The producers booked Lauren on a locally-produced interview TV show in order to generate some publicity. The tremendous honor of playing the piano for this was bestowed upon me.

We discovered upon arriving at the studio that the show’s other featured guest was none other than Barry Manilow. BM was interviewed while sitting at the piano, and he seemed like a pleasant guy while being interviewed. I did notice something strange, though: when responding to questions, he played quiet chords on the piano. It was like he felt more comfortable doing it that way, kind of providing a spontaneous soundtrack for his commentary.

But wait! I’m getting ahead of myself a wee bit here. I remember that the show’s host approached me prior to taping, dutifully and professionally asking my name. When I replied, “Jeremy Kahn”, she said. “Oh, that’ll be so easy to remember; it’s just like the nut!” Having no idea what she meant, but always trying to be agreeable, I simply nodded and began the mental preparation necessary to make a positive impact on our television viewers.

In retrospect, it’s now quite obvious what she meant by “just like the nut”. But, for chrissakes, this woman’s job seemed to be relatively simple: look somewhat telegenic, be perky, ask softball questions and accurately identify the guests. I mean, have YOU ever met anyone with the last name of Pecan? After the taping, I approached our hostess to let her know that she hadn’t gotten my name right. “It’s actually ‘Kahn’, not ‘Pecan'”, I told her. With no apology, she started laughing hysterically. Tee-freaking-hee.

I wondered what my on-camera reaction had looked like while being introduced as a nutty morsel. About a year later, I emailed the show and asked if I could have a copy for my personal use. Hostess replied that, gee, she’d love to, but that the station’s policy precluded her from doing so. Disappointed, I got to thinking about it: Baloney, I thought to myself. What if Barry Manilow had asked for a copy? Would he have gotten the same blonde cold shoulder? I think not. I prayed to the Patron Saint of Awkward Television Moments (St. Ashlee?) and was rewarded when a DVD was delivered to my door. I edited out the chaff so as not to waste your precious time.

Moral of the story? Once again, none. But no one remembers when everything goes according to plan. It’s those little screwups and surprises that get our juices flowing and make life interesting, even when the initial reaction feels like someone squished a grapefruit in your face.

 

 

Bandstand Shenanigans

Hi there.

My last post was one in which I lamented my dead dog. I hope that this one will be even funnier.

Yiddish is an extremely colorful language that was spoken by my ancestors, and many of its words and phrases have made their way into other tongues. For example, two of my favorites are shlemiel and shlemazel. The accepted definitions: a shlemiel is someone who spills soup on someone; a shlemazel is someone who gets soup spilled on him.

The reason for that brief linguistics lesson will be apparent in a moment, but first let me get to the crux of my gist: Mayhem happens in every workplace, and the bandstand is certainly no exception. I’d like to relate four memorable episodes, two in which I cast myself as shlemazel and two as shlemiel. Let’s start with the former.

In the 1980’s era of Trickle-Down Economics, every working keyboard player simply had to have a Yamaha DX-7. It was all the rage, and I went with the flow. The thing about it, though, was that it really didn’t have a decent acoustic piano sound. I will admit that the Log Drum and Wild Boar sounds were outstanding. So, I eventually invested in a little module thing that had a variety of passable faux-acoustic sounds, and I hooked that up to the mighty DX-7. One particular gig was a “Jazz Wedding” in Manhattan (that’s a term for a gig in which the clients claim to want a jazz band, thereby eliminating the need for a rock guitarist or singer). It was a good band, led by violinist Andy Stein: trumpeter Randy Sandke, bassist John Goldsby, drummer Arnie Kinsella and DX-7/module stylist JK. The gig was going smoothly when it was time for the First Dance. We commenced playing “As Time Goes By”, with Andy’s well-intentioned (if not entirely pleasant-sounding) vocals leading the way. The Happy Couple were gazing meaningfully into each others eyes as they danced in front of their guests, and it was about a minute into the song when Randy felt that he no longer needed to be on the bandstand. I’m guessing that Andy’s vocal stylings were perhaps causing Randy some variation of Acid Reflux. While beating his retreat, Randy bumped into my new module, causing its settings to change. Wouldn’t you know, it went into “Demo” mode, whereby it started playing a bunch of prerecorded selections that were designed to show you how great it sounded. Its first selection was a Toccata and Fugue by Bach, played at lightening speed and ear-splitting volume.  I immediately tried to get it off of there and back onto its previous setting, but I had only recently bought the thing and and it seemed like it took forever. In the meantime, the Not-Quite-As-Happy Couple had stopped dead in their tracks and glowered at the band as Andy gamely tried to explain the technical malfunction. John and Arnie assisted me by turning red and convulsing with laughter. A First Dance to remember, no doubt. I wonder if they’re still married.

Around that same time, I was in a band called Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks. We played for a lot of very wealthy people, and a favorite venue to illustrate one’s opulence was (and still is, I’m sure) the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue, particularly in the huge room that houses the Temple of Dendur. One such gala was thrown by Steve Ross: a birthday party for his wife. Ross was, at that time, the Chairman of Time-Warner, so it was a very high-profile affair. Not only had he hired our 13-piece band to play in the Temple, but he had also rented out another section (the American Wing) for cocktails. The musicians for this cocktail portion of the evening were Vince on electric bass, Mark Lopeman on sax et moi. It was arranged that there would be a piano provided for me to play during the cocktail hour, and that another piano would be provided inside the Temple area. So, imagine our surprise when we discovered that there was no piano in the American Wing. The other piano was hundreds of yards and many flights of stairs away, so moving it was not an option. Needless to say,  there was no emergency electric piano in my car. As we were only a few minutes away from the start of our gig, Vince jumped into Crisis Mode. “Quick! Run back over to the Temple and grab Arnie’s orchestra bells!” He was referring to Arnie Kinsella (see above); part of the band’s unique sound was the inclusion of orchestra bells along with the drum set. I did as I was told, and liberated Arnie’s bells for our emergency. The new challenge was the fact that I didn’t see any mallets with which to play the bells. What was a boy to do? I grabbed a setup of silverware: knife, fork, spoon; no doubt some combination thereof would produce the Lionel Hamptonian effect I was seeking. So there we were, playing tasteful cocktail music: Vince on his electric bass (which he despised; he had no use for any instrument that didn’t exist in 1932), Lopie on tenor sax, and me, desperately trying to look like a happenin’ and giggin’ NY musician as I whacked little metal bars with cutlery; looking GQ in my tuxedo (parts of which were held together by duct tape). As I recall, my efforts did not sound like Lionel Hampton. Fisher Price was more like it. In the middle of a tune, I looked around at the hobnobbing guests and noticed two men conversing about six feet away from us: Quincy Jones and Paul Simon. I suddenly didn’t feel so happenin’, but I later spun that moment of humiliation into a hypothetical phone call from Paul Simon to Quincy Jones: “Q! Did you check out that cat last night who playing bells with spoons? Whatta sound! Man, I’ve gotta sample that for my next project.” I’m guessing that no such exchange took place. I don’t even know that they checked us out. Taking no chances, I moved to Chicago not long after.

I now move to the shlemiel portion. In all honesty, the metaphorical soup that I spilled was no accident; the messes that I created were strictly the result of a belief that no one was paying attention to these attempts to amuse myself. Consequently, there may be a more accurate Yiddish word for the type of person in these circumstances. Putz comes to mind. I have always had a bit of an irreverent and cynical streak in me, so I apologize in advance to anyone who might be offended by the choices that I made in the following accounts. Chalk it up to immaturity and youthful indiscretion. I’d like to think that I’ve evolved considerably since then. But, then, I’d like to think all kinds of things.

There’s nothing like a good disease to get the Rich Folk to rub elbows under a tent. Oops: did that sound irreverent and/or cynical? What I meant to say was that those who are in a position to assist others can almost always be counted on to do so in the name of noble and worthy causes. One such occasion found me at a benefit for Alzheimer’s in the lobby of a big office building in midtown Manhattan. Once again, I was lucky enough to make some extra dough by playing for the cocktail hour. I was joined by a wonderful sax player whose name shall be omitted so that his reputation won’t be sullied. I’ll call him Tram. We started making Happy Cocktail Jazz, pretty much ignored by our Charity Festivants. Musing on the whole premise of this event, one of us (Tram, no doubt) thought it would be funny if we played a tune like I Remember You. We played it, of course. Then, feeling naughty, amused and empowered, our program quickly devolved into this tasteless abyss. Any title ending in a question mark or having to do with memory was worthy of our shameless consideration. Some titles that I recall were Where or When?, It’s Easy To Remember (But Hard To Forget), I Didn’t Know What Time It Was, Who?, Try To Remember, What Is This Thing Called Love?, What Am I Here For?, etc. You get the idea. Determined to rot in Hell, we kept at it, unaware when a party-goer approached our Den of Insincerity. Sizing her up, she did not appear happy. When she asked me if we had just played Remember by Irving Berlin, I had no choice but to confess that, yes, ma’am, that was what we played. I mean, she obviously knew and recognized the tune, so I felt that I had no choice but to accept whatever fallout our profound lapse in judgment might bring. Bracing myself for the worst, she looked at me and said, “That’s my favorite song”. Then she walked away.

This last entry makes me swell with pride each time I recall it. If you place the above paragraph at a certain level of callous tastelessness, then take a Bob Beamon-esque leap further into the abyss and you’ll then be properly situated for what you are about to read. I was hired to play in someone’s lovely house for the celebration of a Bar Mitzvah. Once again, I numbed myself into thinking that no one was listening and started to amuse myself with thoughts as to what I might play that would be just the right witty/wry/sardonic commentary on my surroundings. Suddenly, I thought to myself, “Self? You know what I’ve always thought was a pretty catchy tune? ‘Springtime For Hitler’, that’s what.” Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead, I launched into my own unique interpretation of this classic composition from the cinema. My reverie was interrupted when I noticed a boy standing next to the piano. He was about thirteen years old and was looking at me. “Excuse me”, he said, “but what you’re playing sounds a lot like ‘Springtime For Hitler'”. Yikes! Totally busted (yet again), I chose the strategy of Deny, Deny, Deny. “No, no, no. That’s not what I was playing”, I told the young lad. But I reflected for a second and tried to satisfy him with, “But, you know, you’re right. What I was playing does sound an awful lot like ‘Springtime For Hitler'”. I finished out the gig with a lot of songs from Fiddler on the Roof.

A doggy-dog world

We’ve just buried our dog Mari and now I come to praise her.

Despite my advanced age, she was my first real pet. I’ll qualify that last statement: my family had a dog when I was a baby. His name was Spotty, and I’m told that we had him for about a week. When Spotty was so rude as to commit the puppy-like sin of peeing on the garage floor, my mother immediately banished him to the Land of Elsewhere.

Flash forward about 40 years: my older son Charlie (then around eight years old) started dropping hints about wanting a dog, and I couldn’t think of any compelling reasons to say no. So, when our neighbor’s two dogs (one was a German Shepard and the other was a mix of Springer Spaniel and German Short-haired Pointer) had a brief and unforeseen May/December fling, we soon found ourselves with a new member of the household. The boys named her after one of Charlie’s classmates (no, Mari the Human is not a bitch).

The potty training didn’t take long. I recall a few nights of sleeping on the couch downstairs so that I could take her into the back yard, where I stood shivering and begging her to take care of biz. She caught on quickly. I was amused to see the Pointer emerge: if she saw a squirrel or a bird in the back yard, she’d slowly point her puppy paw at the potential prey.

Early on, we kept her in a crate in the basement if she was by herself.  We got home one afternoon and heard Mari barking like crazy. When we let her out of the crate, she immediately dashed up two flights of stairs to Charlie’s bedroom . We discovered an open window with the screen kicked in: someone had climbed up our deck and had broken into the house. The only things that we found missing were a handful of coins and a Kerry Wood baseball card that been in Charlie’s room. The police found a teenager a few days later who confessed to having broken into several houses (including ours) in our neighborhood. I like to think that Mari’s barking (even as a puppy, she had a frightening set of lungs) motivated our burglar’s hasty retreat. We stopped keeping her in the crate from that point on, and our little princess/sentry had free access to the whole house.

She quickly became Queen of the Domicile, greeting most house guests at the door with a pillow in her teeth. She mooched whatever scraps of food we were wimpy enough to give her, in addition to her nightly helping of crunchy carrots and lettuce. And she barked like the Hound from Hell at any dog rude enough to walk in front of our house.

And of course she was the Queen of the Great Outdoors, too. My eyesight was sharpened on our daily walks as I scanned the horizon for other dogs who had the audacity to be walking at the same time. If we saw one approaching, we’d get to the other side of the street because a face-to-face encounter was sure to not go well. Humans, though: that was another story. Mari always stood patiently if someone (especially a little kid) wanted to pet her. The only risk was a wet kiss, particularly if the youngster had soda/candy remnants or dried snot on his face.

In the backyard, the neighbor’s cats got an extended lecture when they came into view. Mostly, though, in classic canine fashion, it was the Chasing of the Ball that gave Mari so much pleasure, but with a few subtle and crafty variations. She would often refuse to drop the ball, and if I tried to grab it from her she would use evasive tactics. A mere twitch of my leg could provoke her into a lightening-quick first step that reminded me of Walter Payton. She faked me out of my shoes more times than I care to admit. Other times, she would casually drop the ball a good fifty feet from where I stood, making me fetch the ball for her! This really annoyed me at first, as I thought, “Hey! I’m the one with the opposable thumbs and I’m the one walking more or less erect. Don’t you know the Social Contract with regards to who is the fetcher and who is the fetchee?” But I came to appreciate it as a manifestation of her intelligence and sense of humor. And, besides, who among us can’t use a little more exercise? She also delighted in dropping the ball where she knew I couldn’t get it, like under a bush or the trampoline. I’d have to tell her, “I can’t get that. Bring me the ball.” She’d then bring it to me, smug and satisfied that she’d made me beg.

In the Fall of 2010, at the age of twelve, Mari had some cancerous growths removed. She came through the procedure with flying colors, but we felt that we were maybe heading into the home stretch. The vet told us to wait and see, and that she might have a nice and happy several months ahead. She did have a nice stretch, but we took her back to the vet in early February 2011 when several lumps reappeared. The vet told us what we had already intuited: the end was rapidly approaching. Still, she was pretty much her normal self for a while, even cavorting and ball-fetching after the great 20″ Blizzard of February 2011. Mariana and I went to L.A. for a wedding on the last weekend of February, leaving Mari in the care of our two boys. We were nervous that she would take a turn for the worse while we were gone, but, again, she was fine.

You hear stories of death being deferred until the return of loved ones. I’m convinced that that was the case with Mari; we returned home on Sunday night and she started vomiting on Tuesday night. Bad timing: our vet is never in his office on Wednesdays (his assistants do office work there for a few hours) and we sure as hell weren’t going to take Mari anywhere else. We made an appointment for Thursday morning. In the meantime, she stopped eating, barking, and, eventually even stopped drinking water. She also was having a progressively harder time moving around. The vomiting continued every few hours; we sometimes succeeded in getting her outside for that. As I write this (3/27/11), there are still a few remnants of her getting sick in the back yard. Is it weird to wax nostalgic over some fading traces of dog puke? Guilty as charged….

Thursday morning came, and knowing what was about to transpire was a very surreal feeling. And incredibly sad, too. Mari was so weak at this point that I had to assist her into the car. The five minutes in the car weakened her to the point where she had to be carried into the office. She was lying on the table like a sack of potatoes when the vet came in to briefly discuss what we had decided to do. He agreed with the decision and then gave her a shot of some kind of relaxant “to take the edge off” (not there was any) and that he’d come back into the room in a few minutes. I held Mari’s paw and looked into her eyes for much of this time. My intention was to attempt to give her comfort, but I soon realized that the Mari that I knew was longer there: she had really been gone for about 36 hours and what remained was merely a remnant. As I stared into her eyes for the last time, I felt that she was telling me that this was the right thing to do, and that if she couldn’t chase a ball, bark at cats or lick our plates, well, then what was the point? I took comfort from that, and she had turned the tables on me for the last time, like getting me to fetch the ball for her. She was a clever vixen. The vet came back and gave her an overdose of barbiturates. He had always commented on her amazingly strong heart, and, poof…..just like that (maybe two minutes) it was beating no more.

Poof: Mari be Gone.  Here is my cue to be tying  things up in a tidy bow, replete with pithy observations on mammalian themes. I’ve never been all that good at that kind of stuff. I will say that our dear doggie still has a residual effect on my everyday rhythm: I start to make sure that we’ll have time for a walk, I expect to hear her come trotting into the kitchen within seconds of slicing an apple or peeling an orange, I glance down at the spot where her water bowl always sat: stuff like that. I never realized how ingrained she was to our household dynamic, even though it should have been obvious: Mari spent more time in our house in the last 12 years than did any of the resident humanoids.

Mari was a wonderful and surprising blessing in my life, and I’ll always miss her and recall her fondly. It’s goofy, but I can’t bring myself to get rid of her red rubber toy that was used to chase each other around the yard. It remains in its usual place on the garage window sill, ready for use. Somehow, though, I don’t think that I can convince Luke or Charlie into displaying the same enthusiasm for it that Mari had.