My Musical Odyssey, Part II: Bach, Beethoven, and Basie

Yeah, I hear your dismay, fellow music nerds: What the glockenspiel happened to Brahms? The answer is very simple: I just don't care for him.

Blasphemy! Heresy! Tools of musicological excommunication, anathematization, shunning, and belittling are even now being leveled at my cretinous self. But if you can just bear with me for a few minutes, I hope you'll reconsider booting me from the Society of Musical Snobbery, because the case I'm arguing in this series is that taste, while it can be cultivated, is ultimately subjective.

When last (a few hours ago, to be precise) we checked in with our erstwhile musical novice, he was about to embark on full apprenticeship in the musical arts. His institution of choice: Willamette University, a small liberal arts college in Salem, Oregon.

I arrived at Willamette grossly unlettered in music literature. My exposure to the classics was limited to a few recitals I had yawned my way through (Van Cliburn--yes, that Van Cliburn--was one), and the lighter works that made it into Boston Pops concerts. After my freshman year of high school, I had dropped symphonic band in favor of jazz ensemble, so I hadn't even experienced any of the great works for winds that any high school instrumentalist should have the opportunity to play. I owned one classical LP: Holst's The Planets, which the needle on my cheap stereo had nearly worn through with repeated playings I waved my arms to almost as often as the Star Wars soundtrack. And I knew a few things on the piano.

At Willamette, I was enrolled in theory, ear training, trumpet lessons, band, and jazz ensemble. Theory was, in the first year, mostly about key signatures, modes, and harmony, so I got most of my introduction to great music literature through immersion. Willamette's band director was Martin Behnke, 33 years old and in his first year in a job he would hold for 25 years. And here I lucked out: he was passionate about music and had excellent taste. Over the course of the next four years, I would be exposed to the whole spectrum of great band literature, from the pioneering works of Holst through the mid-century experiments of Schuman and on into the avant garde: Tull, Nelhybel, Mailman, and Behnke himself. Jazz ensemble was the same kind of experience, expanding my repertoire beyond the swing and blues I'd played in high school to include bebop, fusion, funk, and even disco.

Then there were the concerts. For the first three years I was at Willamette, there were two professional symphony orchestras playing regularly in Smith Auditorium: the Salem Symphony and the Oregon Symphony. As a Willamette student, I could get into Salem Symphony concerts for free, and ushering got me into the Oregon Symphony for free. Neither orchestra was world-class--the Salem Symphony, in particular, was very much a community group, even though its principals were mostly professors at Willamette--but they had serious programs, and I heard symphonies by Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert, Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Mahler, as well as a vast assortment of concertos, many featuring world class soloists.

And for the first year, and a big chunk of the second, I spent most of those concerts studying for other classes.

I'm not at all proud of this. I know much of my motivation came from fulfilling a requirement: every music major had to attend at least thirty concerts and recitals per semester. I wasn't fond of recitals, especially student recitals--they really bored me--but I did like symphonic music, just as long as it was exciting. But here's the problem: until you know what you're listening to, there's a lot going on in a symphony concert that just isn't that exciting. In the beginning, the simple perfection of Mozart did nothing for me, nor did I find much to enjoy in the delightful works of Haydn; and I only liked Beethoven when he was writing in a minor key. That was true of most symphonic music I was listening to, including in my dorm room with my slowly expanding record collection: I just preferred music in the minor mode. It seemed more cinematic, exciting, passionate to me. Sunny, happy, joyous music wasn't working for me.

I took Introduction to Music Literature my sophomore year. I should've taken it a year earlier, because it finally opened my mind to the great music I'd been dismissing as too cheerful for my tastes. It would still be years before I developed a liking for Mozart, but that would come in time. I also took introductory conducting that year, and this is what finally had me paying attention at concerts, though at first it was to fulfill a class requirement: reviewing conductors. Watching how they interacted with orchestras and choirs, I found a visual focal point that finally tore me away from my practice of using concerts as background music for my studies. And it took: to this day, the hero of every ensemble concert I attend, whether it is band, choir, or orchestra, is the conductor. I watch to see how well she or he embodies the music, how the dance of hands, baton, and facial expression elicit expression from the musicians, how his or her interpretive choices enhance or detract from the overall impact of the work being performed. At times I become so engrossed my own hands get involved, sketching small patterns in the air in front of my seat.

My junior year it was time for Music History, and now I really dug in, finally discovering the thrill of musicological criticism, something that would follow me to seminary. The evolution of tonality, of harmony, of rhythm and form and function enthralled me. Music became my mistress, and she rewarded every ounce of attention I devoted to her a thousandfold.

I wish I could say I was similarly plunging into jazz, but that was simply not the case. Bebop left me cold. My favorite jazz performer was Chuck Mangione, whose jazz-rock compositions sometimes fell into the category of schlock: pleasant stuff to put on while you fold laundry, but barely more profound than the easy listening records I had, thankfully, packed up with the other playthings of my high school years. I wanted badly to be a trumpet soloist, but I was unwilling to put in the time I saw one of my rivals taking, improvising to recordings of great jazz standards. This kind of improvisation was something I could have learned in the same way I could have become far more fluent in Spanish: by taking the repetitious, tedious time in the practice room. Instead, I focused on the theoretical and, in my own practice, on classical performance.

As a result, I graduated from Willamette with a splendid education in the classics, but not really understanding jazz. I had spent many hours in used record stores adding to my collection of classical recordings, occasionally picking up a jazz record; but my taste in jazz was almost exclusively on big bands, just as my taste in classical music tended much more to the symphonic.

I went directly from Willamette to Illinois, where I finally developed a taste for opera to supplement my love of the great instrumental and choral works. I didn't play in any instrumental ensembles at Illinois, though I did take trumpet lessons from a master who turned me from a competent technician into a true performer. I also sang in a church choir that would put many university choirs to shame, and through it had a rapid education in some of the masterworks of sacred choral literature. And I kept buying used records.

After four years of college and a year of graduate school, I knew what I liked, and, more importantly, why I liked it. My tastes ran from the baroque to the minimalist. My collection included atonal and serial music, oratorios with counter-tenors singing the parts usually given to sopranos, and much more of the sort of thing that turns off uneducated ears to classical music. My jazz collection, though, was still pedestrian, with one exception: Basie.

When I first arrived at Willamette, the big band I liked best was Woody Herman's Thundering Herd. The Herman band in the 1970s had issued a number of studio albums that were packed with arrangements of popular songs--which, as with Mangione, came perilously close to putting them in the easy listening category. My uneducated ears loved this stuff, though, and when we occasionally played a Woody Herman arrangement in the Willamette jazz ensemble, I ate it up. What I had never experienced before coming to Willamette, though, was Count Basie.

Martin Behnke was a Basie fan, and, bless him, programmed a Basie arrangement into almost every concert we played. The Basie style is sublimely laid back, even when powering through a barn-burner like "The Heat's On," one of my all-time favorite jazz pieces. There's not a lot of harmonic sophistication to Basie arrangements--they're all either based on the blues or standards--but there can be no question, listening to this music, that it is leaps and bounds superior to covering a Stevie Wonder piece that's far better left in its original, vocal version.

I came at classical music through a side door: Gustav Holst's The Planets, which intrigued me because of its similarities to great film music. My entrée to jazz was a true jazz great. Thanks to Basie, I had the foundation that would serve me well two decades later when I finally began exploring jazz in earnest.

I had one chance at hearing Basie live. I think it was January, 1984, and the Basie Big Band was playing a concert at Illinois. I bought my ticket the moment it went on sale, and counted the days until I could finally hear the great man live. I had an excellent seat, close to the stage, and I was there early. The time for the concert finally arrived, the band filed onstage and took their places--and no Basie. Then the lead trumpeter stepped to a microphone and said, "The Count's not feeling well. He took sick after last night's show. But we brought the piano out anyway, just to remind us of him." They played a great concert, but, as I was to learn a few days later, the night before it had been Basie's last performance. He was dead within a week.

But that's a sidebar. What we've seen over the course of this chapter is my evolution into a connoisseur of serious music, but still mostly ignorant of popular music, except partially its jazz incarnation. As my tastes expanded, I discovered that music which I would have found disjointed, uncomfortably dissonant, even random as a freshman now had much to offer me; in fact, some of my favorite works now were pieces I would have rejected out of hand prior to that classical training. Taste, I was discovering, can be taught. My goal now was to teach young people to have taste and, I hoped, to turn them on to real music--which, to me, meant classical.

And then I graduated, entered the real world, and learned how little of the truth I really knew.

Comments