My Musical Odyssey, Part I: Sugar Lips


There was never any doubt I would be a musician.

My father began taking pictures of me at my mother's piano as soon as I was able to sit up by myself. My mother, a classically trained professional organist and piano teacher, started me on lessons when I was 5, and continued teaching me until I was 11, when I was allowed to choose a band instrument. I have little memory of the music I learned during those piano lessons, though I do remember that new sheet music had a wonderful fragrance to it. There are a number of pieces from Bach's Anna Magdalena Notebook I can still play--more likely fake--from memory, and that's about it.

Considering my mother was a professional musician, and my father a gifted amateur, it's remarkable how little music I heard growing up. We had a phonograph, but it was mostly used to play children's records. There were a few LPs, as well as several box sets of 78s, that my brothers and I would occasionally put on, but there was little on them to excite us. We wanted to listen to stories, not songs. Sterling Holloway reading Just So Stories was great; the soundtrack to Bambi was boring. We didn't listen to the radio, either, and popular music was generally looked down upon, so I was never initiated into the music every other child in America was grooving to: post-British invasion rock and roll. I did not discover a musical album I cared to listen to until the summer before I began playing the trumpet, when I checked out Al Hirt's The Horn Meets the Hornet from the Emmett Public Library and listened to it again and again, to the extent that, had it not been a library record, it might well have been dashed to pieces by one of my parents. I couldn't listen in my own room: the phonograph in the living room was all I had.

The Horn Meets the Hornet featured Al Hirt's one real claim to fame, the theme from The Green Hornet, a short-lived TV series I could just barely remember. It was exciting music, showcasing the technical prowess of a performer previously known for playing Dixieland music. With clarinetist Pete Fountain, he was for many years a mainstay of New Orleans traditional jazz, but it was only once he began recording instrumental versions of popular songs that his career took off nationally. With album titles like "Sugar Lips," "Cotton Candy," and "Honey in the Horn," it was clearly the sweetness of his tone on ballads that was selling records, mostly to older adults.

Al Hirt was my entrée into the genre of Easy Listening. Never able to understand lyrics, and shy about my own singing voice, I gravitated at an early age to instrumental music, and in the 1970s, that mean schmaltzy arrangements of pop, Broadway, and Hollywood songs of the 1950s and '60s: elevator music. Besides Al Hirt, my favorite recording artists were Ferrante and Teicher, a virtuosic piano duo whose repertoire consisted of show tunes and light versions of classical pieces. I loved the soaring melodies, the elegant runs, the drama, the pathos, the...oh, who am I kidding? Schmaltz, schmaltz, and more schmaltz.

This was all I was listening to. I owned no rock albums, no jazz albums, no genuine classical albums. My record collection would've fit right in at a retirement home. I was in high school by now, with my own phonograph. I had a clock radio, but I kept it tuned to Corvallis's easy listening station. At school, lunch hours were an exercise in endurance, as a jukebox was rolled out into the hallway and rock music blasted through the school. I hated it. It made it hard to concentrate on reading science fiction novels, my preferred lunchtime activity.

And then, at the beginning of my junior year, Mr. Ogren came to Philomath High School.

Dan Ogren was fresh out of teacher college. He was a long-haired jazz trumpeter, and he was nuts about music. I was playing in the jazz ensemble by now, but not playing well: nobody in that band knew how to swing. Mr. Ogren diagnosed this problem early on, and spent that entire year teaching us to do it. Apart from his enthusiasm, he put some high quality materials in front of us: a book of classic swing era charts. It worked. I was finally hooked on jazz--though it was still the jazz of an older, smoother era. Big band music is still just one step removed from easy listening. But it was a start. My senior year, we branched out into other genres, playing funk, light rock, and even a little bebop.

Meanwhile, another Force had entered my life. That capital F is intentional: I'm talking, of course, about Star Wars.

I heard the soundtrack before I saw the movie. In the summer of 1977, I attended a music camp on the Oregon coast. One of the other guys in my cabin had a tape of the soundtrack from a movie I'd been reading about in Starlog magazine. That week I must've listened to it a dozen times, and when the movie finally reached Corvallis in July, I was one of the first in town to see it. It took me awhile to buy the soundtrack for myself, but once I did, I spent many an hour waving my arms in front of my stereo, conducting the score. My love for this music led me to John Williams' other great soundtrack of the late 1970s, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which introduced me to a host of late twentieth century composition techniques. I found much of it hard to listen to at first, but over time, it grew on me, so that when, in college, I was exposed to the music Williams had based those sounds on, I didn't simply cover my ears.

My sonic world was expanding, but at a snail's pace. Apart from the dissonance of Close Encounters, there was still nothing in my personal play list that would have sounded out of place in a retirement home. I tolerated dances, rarely leaving the sidelines for anything but a slow dance, and didn't care for anything that my younger brother, who'd developed a taste for disco, was playing on his own phonograph. My musical preferences were hopelessly square: I had the tastes of a 60-year-old.

I've written before about how subjective a thing artistic taste can be. Musical preference is intensely personal. For many it's driven by a sort of lemming effect: popular music is popular because it's popular. Many of the top 40 singles are mind-numbingly similar variations on whatever is hot at the moment. People may not know music, but they know what they like, and they want more music that sounds just like that. In the late 1970s, the hottest sound was that of the Bee Gees; as a result, much of what was played at school dances featured falsetto vocals and repetitious disco beats. It was easy to dance to, not too hard on the ears, and though I didn't care for it--falsetto singing has rarely done anything for me--my peers loved it.

Inoffensiveness can only take pop music so far, though, especially when teenagers are its primary audience, and half the fun is driving parents to distraction. And this is probably the main reason I never cottoned to the music of my generation: when it wasn't being sung in falsetto by Englishmen in tight white jeans, it was being screamed by costumed freaks calling themselves KISS. That was never my cup of tea: I was the responsible one, the one whose task it was to maintain my parents' values and standards, and there was no place in my world for devil horns, tongue extensions, or ear-splitting guitar solos.

And then I went to college.

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