O Jaki

My piano teacher in college was Jaki Byard, and he was a huge influence on me. I’ve covered this subject in detail on my website (http://www.kahnman.com/byard.php). When he was shot to death by a knucklehead who had come his door (yet another story) in 1999, I had only been in touch with him once in the previous 19 years. Yet, even with such limited contact, he was never far from my thoughts. I therefore felt a strong pull to attend his memorial service at St. Peter’s in Manhattan, and made the journey from Chicago in order to be there.

Despite the deep sadness of the occasion, I was immediately glad that I had decided to go. I saw a lot folks for the first time in ages, and there were a lot of moving tributes, both musical and verbal.  When it came time for the Apollo Stompers (Jaki’s big band) to play, the original plan had been to leave the piano chair vacant. Logical enough. But, at the last minute, my old pal (and sax/flute maven) Jed Levy asked if I would sit in with them. Extremely surprised and extremely touched, I of course agreed.

The Stomper’s first tune was Jaki’s arrangement of “I May Be Wrong (But I Think You’re Wonderful)”, or, as Groucho Marx called it, “I May Be Wonderful But I Think You’re Wrong.”  Since some band members were taking a while to locate their parts, I was instructed to take a chorus by myself as an intro. As I happily plowed my way through the tune and approached the last few bars, it became evident that there were some players who still hadn’t located the music. Someone on the bandstand yelled, “Take another chorus!”.  I obliged.

It struck me that this was a deliciously Jaki-like moment: Absurdly spontaneous, loose and anarchic, yet doing the music no disservice whatsoever. I pictured Jaki, chuckling in his high-pitched and staccato style, and instructing me in his Worcester accent, “Take anuthah one.” I think that I played with the band for the rest of their little set; I don’t remember.

Is there a moral to this tale? I don’t know. Maybe this: Never pass up a chance to go to a funeral. You just never know what might go down.

Happiness is/was

My son surprised me recently when he casually mentioned that he listened to Vince Guaraldi’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” almost every day. I never really thought of it as a “desert island” recording, but, if you think about, that record, in its own sneaky way, introduced a lot of people to the sound of a jazz piano trio. And, while I usually only listen to it during the Holiday Season, I never tire of hearing it again for the umpteenth time.

I actually met Vince Guaraldi. After graduating from high school, my buddy Jon Krupp and I embarked on an epic cross-country road trip. In San Francisco, we boarded with an old friend of my dad’s who was a friend of Vince’s. He took us to hear him play at a club in Palo Alto. He and his trio sounded great, and the several gin-and-tonics that I slurped down only enhanced the listening experience. I was introduced to the Maestro, and he was told that I was a neophyte stylist in the realm of Jazz Piano. Upon learning this, he insisted that I play a tune with his band. Surprised, drunk and scared shitless, I got up and played Summertime. It couldn’t have been too bad, because he asked me to play another tune (I don’t recall the selection; maybe Jon does). He then said some generically encouraging things to me, along the lines of “Yeah, man” and “Keep at it”. It was a huge thrill.

In my jaded hindsight, it’s possible that my sitting in provided Vince with the chance to have a taste, and that my second tune allowed him to savor that welcome respite. But I prefer to think that he was open to providing an opportunity for a young guy just starting (I mean REALLY just starting) on his musical journey.

The moral of the story should be obvious, yet often seems to elude us grizzled veterans: Give a kid a chance when you’re in the position to do so, even if you’re pretty sure that the kid is likely to be green and a bit rough around the edges. Everybody has to start somewhere.

Brush with greatness

How many times can you have the chance to play with one of the all-time greats? For me, not that many.

But, in 1984, I had the privilege of playing in Singapore with Pepper Adams, arguably the greatest bari sax player in jazz history, or (inarguably) certainly one of the top three, along with Harry Carney and Gerry Mulligan.

This comes to mind because of the recent release of two CDs under my leadership that feature Pepper’s compositions. They’re under the auspices of an all-Pepper website: www.pepperadams.com. It’s the masterwork of Gary Carner, who has spent 25 years compiling and annotating all things Pepper. A towering achievement.

I recall that I had mixed feelings about traveling to Singapore to play with Pepper. Not that I wasn’t thrilled to do the gig. Don’t laugh: the gig conflicted with the World Series, and it looked like my beloved Cubs would be participating. But Rick Sutcliffe, Leon Durham, Lee Smite and Steve Garvey kindly ensured that there would be no such conflict, so I was able to give my full attention to hanging on for dear life as I played with this jazz icon.

I encourage you to check out the website and explore the overlooked legacy of Pepper.

Doppelgangbanger

When I was a kid, I thought there couldn’t possibly be another Jeremy Kahn. First of all, Jeremy was a pretty rare name for my generation. It got very popular for babies when I was a teenager. Secondly, I suppose every kid’s ego dictates that he or she is unique.

Anyway, imagine my surprise when I learned in my twenties that there was a Jeremy Kahn at Harvard who was the president of the Harvard Society of Nerds. Ouch, man. Now, of course, you can Google your own name to see what comes up. I see a math guy, a journalist and a doctor, to name but a few. There’s even another musician: a guitar player (not a pianist, thank god) who lives in the UK. We’ve corresponded occasionally, and he recently told me that a lady tracked him down to ask him to do some recording, mistakenly thinking that it was me.

I guess that I’ve matured enough to take a strange comfort in the knowledge that other Jeremy Kahns exist. Maybe we should all meet up for a beverage sometime.

Working Title

There’s a very old joke: How do you get a musician to complain? Give him a gig.

There’s more than a grain of truth in that old groaner. Right now I’m in the middle of a stretch where I’m playing and conducting eight shows a week, and, by Sunday night, after having played five shows in three days, I’m pretty whupped. I like my down time; I’m very good at doing nothing. But, I’ll tell you this: down time is more enjoyable when it’s your reward for having worked hard.

I’m very appreciative that I have a skill that is somewhat marketable. With all the under- and unemployed people running around, these are indeed confusing times.

A Labor Day toast: Here’s to many multitudes of complaining musicians.