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.