A winding road to Gerry Mulligan, or Why I love music: A reminder

Originally written for NoDepression.com

I don’t especially remember when or why I started piano lessons. I can only imagine I must have been young enough to be pre-memory. But I do clearly recall my first piano teacher, her house, the living room, not being able to reach the pedals. She had a son, who had an Atari. There were four of us – my two sisters, my brother, and I – and we took turns with the lessons. Whoever wasn’t receiving a lesson would be back there playing Q-Bert with the boy whose name I can’t recall for the life of me.

Thinking back, this must have been the most glorious babysitting proposition for my mother – a single mom of four kids who was working full time and putting herself through grad school. She could drop us off, leave us there for hours, and we’d return both chaperoned and cultured.

In our house, the piano was in the center of the living room. It didn’t hold the same allure of private music experience that the violin, flute, and guitar would later possess for me. Those, I could practice in my room, door shut, imagining a rapt audience hanging on my every “Little Brown Jug” note.

No, the piano was central. The siblings had to turn off the television and either disperse or sit and listen to me practice. I hated it. I hated running through my scales and practicing my rhythms. I hated alternating between staccato and legato notes in the “exercises” book. The entirety of music theory seemed so obvious to me, like something I already knew. Practicing sixteenth notes felt redundant. I tried to attack these with as much artistry as possible. First speeding up the scale, my fingers stumbling over each other, then playing the descending notes in a long, painful ritard. Sometimes I would try asserting some dynamics on them. But no amount of decoration could convince me I was really truly playing the instrument. I was just practicing scales. Boring.

It’s a wonder I got anywhere with that instrument. I had such an unwavering desire to be proficient. My inner performer was so determined and self-conscious from a young age that playing scales within undeniable earshot of my siblings was painful. I wanted to give them the exceptional artistry of Debussy; the frantic flailing of Rachmaninoff.

My sister Kristin never practiced, but she could sit down, open to some random page in her Tchaikovsky book, and sight read the hell out of the piece in one sitting, then get up and walk away.

I wanted that skill.

In fourth grade, I started taking violin lessons in addition to piano. I loved the complex sound of the notes played out between the strings and the bow. It sounded to me like waking up in the morning – the first words you use, getting your voice to work right. Of course I was terrible at it, so the squeaking rawness was my poor playing. But there was something authentic and gritty about it. I would have stuck with the instrument beyond elementary school had a friend not indicated to me that people who play in the middle school orchestra are total social rejects. So, instead, I registered for band. Way cooler.

I was noncomittal in choosing an instrument. Secretly, I wanted drums real bad. But there were no other girls on drums, so I talked myself into thinking it was a boys-only instrument. Where I got that idea is anyone’s guess. Trumpet was another thought, but it was too loud. So I landed on the flute. Quiet and subtle, it was only capable of playing one note at a time. Unlike piano and violin, where you could chunk up chord progressions and be your own symphony, the flute was the sonic equivalent of a singular ballerina dancing en pointe across an otherwise empty stage.

I took to the flute with some kind of natural appetite. It wasn’t a mystery to me how to blow into it. Didn’t take too long to figure that one out. The positioning of my fingers on the keys seemed like slipping my hands into a custom glove. I enjoyed how, like with singing, the fever with which the instrument was played depended entirely on my breath. I didn’t particularly like where the flute parts led me in the context of band class, though. Didn’t appreciate the flute arrangement in our Beach Boys medley. That struck me as hokey. Flute is for Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” not silly classic rock tunes. So I developed a disinterest in practicing for band. I don’t believe I made it past seventh grade in that ensemble. Instead, I started taking private lessons, moving on to what I considered “real” flute music: Mozart concertos and the like.

Meanwhile, I was singing in a  choir for children based out of the university in town. We sung in German and French, which felt very serious and heady. By high school, I had convinced my mother I needed to pile private classical voice lessons onto my plate, in addition to piano and flute. The whole time, I was also studying ballet – a fact which has ensured I don’t just experience music aurally – it’s something which must also be experienced bodily.

In college, a friend invited me to participate in a “Battle of the Bands” with him. Most of the other bands were punk rock or hardcore screamy distorted guitar troupes, but we didn’t have time to form such an outfit. It was just the two of us. I played flute and he played guitar. We wrote existential navel-gazing songs and won the battle.

That was the moment when I finally lost interest in classical music. I continued to study it – composition and theory ad nauseum. Took classes in sight singing and all that stuff. But my interest and attention had turned to songwriting. Now that I was performing songs I was writing, listening to any music became an endless source of fascination. The way songwriters navigated around the dominance of the 4 and 5, manipulated a song and its listener(s) by hanging on the 7. The way words asserted their own rhythms and melodies, begged to be sung certain ways, to be emphasized through pauses. I started noticing when parts of songs stood out above the rest, and whether it was because of the point the songwriter was making, or whether it was a clear and lazy mistake.

I became a student of the radio.

Around this time, I met a man in Buffalo named Michael Meldrum who I think liked me because my hair was pink and I clearly had no idea how to play the guitar. After a lifetime of studying music with teachers, I picked up guitar determined to figure it out on my own. I knew enough chords to make songs happen, but I didn’t really know what I was doing.

Michael was endlessly encouraging. He booked me gigs, he crammed me onto showcase lineups where I’d be there just to play three songs between two much more seasoned and gifted songwriters. He got me onstage as much as he could, and drove me home when it was snowing. All of this, I know now, was part of my education. He knew the more I was around people who were doing it right, for the right reasons, the more it would start to rub off. That’s how he rolled, and what he did for so many budding songwriters in Buffalo.

I started to pick up that the person onstage with the instrument has a responsibility to the people in the room. They’re louder than everyone else, because they’re amplified. And, the world being as it is, they have the opportunity to inject those people with a will and spirit to shake off today and withstand whatever happens tomorrow.

It’s not about you, in other words. It’s about what’s in that box of wood. It’s about what the music can do.

I didn’t fully grasp this until years later.

After years of struggling through coffeehouse gigs for four people (including two friends and one barista), I moved to Manhattan to see how far I could take the music thing. I did okay. I got to play on some legendary stages, met some incredible people, wrote some songs that were actually quite good.

But then 9/11 happened and the world turned upside down. I’ll spare you the details.

One day when I was unemployed and living in Bed-Stuy, I brought the dog into the city to wander with me for the afternoon. It was just about dusk and people were starting to gather in Union Square, as they had been for weeks, with their candles and drums and sidewalk chalk. The fires were still burning at Ground Zero. The need to connect, to remember what life is, what peace is, was palpable. I walked up on the square and could hear a small group of people had begun singing “We Shall Overcome.” Suddenly that lesson Michael had taught me about what music can do, made perfect sense.

Of course I had no clue I would, a decade later, wind up working on a book about the woman who introduced that song to the labor movement and, by extension, civil rights leaders. But that is the moment to which I return when the stack of review CDs piling up in my office gets too high. When I realize I haven’t been to a live music show in “too long,” whatever that means. When I open up Spotify and find myself at a loss.

I tell you all this because I’ve been at odds with music lately, preferring silence more than anything. It’s been a busy year, full of travel and hectic weeks between road trips. I stare at the review CDs and see only the promise of cacophony. It’s bothersome to me because I have loved music my whole life, but I also know it’s only temporary. Like Gillian wrote in this space recently, sometimes you just have to not like music for a bit.

This week, my car radio has been easing me back to myself. I’ve tuned it away from the stations which usually fill my body and brain with the kind of artists we discuss here. Instead, I’ve been listening to classical and jazz music. Specifically, yesterday and today, I’ve been hung up on Gerry Mulligan – a jazz player about whom I’d never heard a thing until now. How I managed to miss him in my eighteenthousand music history classes is a mystery, but he’s bringing me back to what I know too well.

Music, when you close your eyes and let the day fall off, is humanity’s most selfless expression.

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