Tag Archives: music education

The Failure of American Public Schools

The failure of the American public school system is that while we have emphasized the importance of those skills that “get things done” or that provide our children with the technological tool set to “compete” on a global scale, we have neglected to teach them the reasons WHY one should avail themselves of that technology. In addition, by eliminating the arts, we have removed the one source of study that provides insight into how all these technological skills fit together, how they construct a culture, how they inform an intelligent community, how they make life worth living.

When I look back at what I learned from the fine arts in school (back when they were part of the school curriculum), I wonder why they are not mandatory education.

From music (both instrumental and choral), I learned history, foreign language, mathematics, literature, geography, ratios, fractions, timing, physical and mental discipline, team dynamics and collaboration, listening, posture, breathing, improvisation, balance, poise, public speaking, and self-respect.

What I didn’t learn from music, I learned from art: proportions, composition, construction, optics, chemistry, preservation, creative visualization, theme, and color theory.

And what both gave me was a healthy introduction to religion, philosophy, anthropology, marketing, psychology, communications, politics, self-criticism, self-discipline and logic.

Only one or two of those things I learned in P.E. or playing sports. And while math and science as individual subjects may provide greater depth into some specifics, they certainly are pretty dry when you don’t have something meaningful to do with them.

The arts are not an elective.

Not for a culture or society that hopes to survive its technology. Not for a culture that wants to do better than just “survive”.

They are, and should always be, mandatory education.

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Every Bass Player Should Know These Names

B.B. Dickerson
Johnny Flippin
William “Bootsy” Collins
Larry Graham
Donald “Duck” Dunn
George Porter Jr.
James “Jamie” Jamerson
Verdine White
Carol Kaye

Add ’em to my already super-long list:

Gary Peacock, Ron Carter, Paul Chambers, Charles Mingus, Jaco Pastorius, Ray Brown, Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Oscar Pettiford on one side, and

Chris Squire, John Entwistle, Paul McCartney, Jack Casady, Steve Harris, Tony Levin, Jack Bruce, Jack Berlin, Felix Pappalardi, Fernando Saunders, Louis Johnson, Robert Shakespeare, and Aston “Family Man” Barrett on the other side.

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Back to the Bass-ics

After years of playing rhythm and lead guitar, tonight I’m returning to the bass for a jam session at Roque’s Blues Hall here in Natchitoches. To reindoctrinate myself, so to speak, I’m listening back to my earliest influences and remembering why I loved the bass first and foremost during my musical development.

I started out at the end of the second grade playing classical violin. By the end of the fifth grade, my hands were big enough (and the need in the school orchestra was such) that I could handle the upright bass. Fortuitously enough, the orchestra director (Dr. James Loveman) was a double bass man himself. He gave me private lessons, and helped me blister my way through Simandl. By the end of the seventh grade, I was good enough to audition and be accepted in the Lima Area Youth Symphony.

But let’s face it — classical bass is pretty dry. I was listening to jazz and blues, and wanted to play them. I added Ray Brown’s bass method to my repertoire, and Charles Mingus, Ray Brown and Ron Carter to my turntable.

Again, fortune stepped in. My junior high band director (Dr. Dennis Mack) was a low brass and bass man, too — he played tuba, double bass and electric bass. And he was also the high school jazz band director. At time I came along, he was playing the bass for the group himself, to fill the student void. Although I was only in junior high, he asked if I would sit in. My reading chops were up to snuff, and I sailed through on the big double bass. But he wasn’t satisfied. I just wasn’t loud enough.

And here’s where the history really starts. He let me borrow his electric bass and amplifier to play with the high school jazz band. I added Carol Kaye’s electric bass method to my repertoire, and Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke, Bootsy Collins and Jamie Jamerson to my turntable. Of course, I also had some mighty rock influences — Paul McCartney, Jack Bruce, John Entwistle. And I practiced my ass off. I slept with the bass in hand.

That was the beginning. By the time I graduated high school (with the Louis Armstrong Jazz Award for outstanding high school jazz musician in tow), I considered myself capable of playing almost whatever I wanted (or needed) on the bass. That was the middle.

Skip ahead. Skip through orchestra gigs, skip missing the audition for Ozzy Osbourne’s band by a day, skip the Blue Wave Band opening for PeeWee Crayton (who said that I was “the baddest m*f* bass player” he’d ever seen), skip Peewee’s grandson Marshall wanting to put something together with me and Jeff Lorber (which of course fell through), skip through Sun Concert Bass heads, Gallien-Krueger cabinets, skip the Faith Assembly goth and the Moondogs psychedelic revival.

When I went to Berklee, it was on a voice scholarship. Because you had to submit review tapes, and it seemed like voice was more strongly featured on what tapes I had. But on the same day I did my voice placement auditions, I ventured over to the bass department and breezed through their tryout and placement process. They wanted me to switch majors. But that would have meant losing my scholarship. That was the beginning of the end.

I played a great gig with the Bloodfarmers in NYC; played bass, and rocked, because what they really wanted was Geezer Butler, who I could replicate with my eyes closed. For me, it was just a flashback. Somewhere along the line, probably when I had to sell all my bass gear before moving to Memphis, the guitar seemed easier to transport. And all those influences I’d picked up between the beginning and Memphis — Willie Dixon, Paul Chambers, Duck Dunn, Jack Cassady, Chris Squire, Tony Levin, Jack Berlin, Geezer Butler, David Porter Jr., Steve Harris — seemed to slip away. I started playing a lot of solo gigs, which definitely were easier with guitar.

And now, 32 years from when I first picked up a bass, it feels like I’ve come full circle. In that time I’ve played in a lot of bands. In those where I didn’t play bass, I never felt the bass players really got it. In listening to a lot of bands, and watching a lot of pretty good players, you start to notice there are probably only a dozen bass players that do. All the bands where I played bass seemed to fall apart once I left them. In other words, I used to be irreplaceable.

Now, I’ve got to prove that all over again. Fingers, don’t fail me now.

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I Blame Lawrence Welk

I love old songs, and I love mixing it up and keeping ’em guessing.

For that, I blame Lawrence Welk.

Some jazz cats look down on Welk’s ensemble (compared to Goodman, Ellington or Kenton it was a SWEET band), and the singers WERE pretty square. But it was the only TV show that zoomed in on the trombone player. It was the “Elvis movie” of TV – inspiration to a young instrumentalist. The mention of the clarinet anywhere else results in raised eyebrows and looks of shame. And they did tribute shows – Irving Berlin, marches of the world, and so on. I blame Lawrence Welk for giving me to Cole Porter right after I finished devouring Buck Owens on “Hee Haw.” And Willie Nelson’s doing some of those songs now, so I’m not alone in this. Country music is built upon American song history, on “Down in the Valley” and “Sweet Betsy from Pike”. These are songs that New Country doesn’t know about. It’s a different “country” altogether. American music from Scott Joplin to Jimmie Rodgers to Fats Waller, from Lefty Frizzell to Woody Guthrie to Burl Ives, from Helen Forrest to the Andrews Sisters, from the Ink Spots and Mills Brothers.

I could go on and on. I blame Lawrence Welk for that, too.

It means that a barbershop arrangement of “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” or a high lonesome rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” isn’t out of the question. I blame Lawrence Welk for showing that any song could be included in your repertoire, and that people will dance.

And I enjoy what I’m doing. I blame Myron Floren for that.

He ALWAYS looked like he was having a blast. And that’s what I wanted from the start. I love to entertain.

And I love America, where it is all possible, even for a son of immigrants (and aren’t we all?).

For that, most of all, I blame Lawrence Welk.

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Soundtrack for a New Age

Each historical age is determined by the predominant societal position given to the individuals, groups, nations or empires that can produce or have the resources to acquire whatever substance that age equates to its varied definitions of power. The Bronze Age – whoever could make the most bronze weapons and tools was the predominant culture; The Iron Age – same scenario, different metal. Once societies ran out of harder or more workable metals, they had to pause and re-evaluate their priorities. As a result, we had the Dark Ages – whoever could keep the most people in the dark about their own potential and thereby utilize the brawn of the world without the cumbersome benefit of its brain; the Industrial Age – the period during which those who appeared to be the most industrious were valued, when how much you had really first became more important that what it was you had so much of; the Computer Age – that period of time after we figured out we could get someone else to do the thinking for us, and ending just before the period of time when we began to realize we couldn’t tell the difference; and finally, we are in the midst of what some are calling the Information Age. Of course, because there are so many of us in this world now, and each of us more or less autonomously by consensus creates, borrows, buys, steals, inherits, creates, is allowed, is deluded into, or avoids their own separate, unique and individual opinion on the subject, whether we are at the beginning, in the middle, or nearing the definite conclusion of the information age is highly subjective.

My belief is that we are near the end of the Information Age; and that means that a new age is on the imminent horizon. I will outline my reasons for this belief, both in its ceasing to exist and clearly waiting to exist aspects, in a while. For now, let me just skip forward to my conclusion: The next age we are about to enter is the Wisdom Age, and unless we start thinking about gathering some of it together now, you and I and a lot of people on this planet are going to be on the bottom of the food chain, socially speaking.

The first question I would put forward to anyone I encountered in this new age would not be, “Do you speak MY language, stranger,” but rather, “Can you sing in your OWN (language)?”

At the conclusion of my initial interrogative statement I would commence to demonstrate a song of my own devising, in my own language. If there was no reply in kind, then that person would be required to locate someone of his own kind who could in fact sing a few bars. If that individual was willing to teach the first “stranger” something of the way of singing, then improvement of that culture could continue. Of course, there would be attempts, in the beginning of the age, where some would try to get others to sing on their behalf (which would of course give credibility to the singer and only by association improve the standing of the employer in some respects, and lower their believability in other respects), or would learn, by rote, someone else’s songs and try to bluff their way through (of course, a true singer would know that the song was not of the singer’s creation, and would know something was false in the communication). But this would rapidly prove the exception.

After the first exchange of songs in each of the singer’s native languages, translation of ideas and other information could ensue. Without a meeting of equals, an individual or group, no matter how extensive or impressive or overwhelming their other assets, had no basis for transacting communication and no wise way of achieving that objective. Unless two individuals can understand, through that shared experience of each other’s inner being that singing your own song weaves into reality, what really is important to the other person, there is no fair, equitable, honest, open, profitable or moral grounds for business, trade, marriage, treaty, alliance, division, disagreement, censorship, condemnation, ridicule, friendship, religion or warfare – in short, none of these partnership activities can occur. If you want any of those things but can not get your songs in order, you just have to wait. You’re obviously not ready for whatever it is you think you want. So you have time to work on your song and get it together.

Maybe this will help put things into a bit of perspective:

Imagine walking down the sidewalk on an early spring morning, a light mist still hanging in the air in the coolness of the day. You could be in a metropolitan area, or out in the middle of the desert (of course, the construction and very nature of your sidewalk will vary depending on that first choice). There could be thousands of other people involved in this selfsame activity, or you could be the only one. For the sake of this illustration, imagine yourself and at least one other person who will become aware of your presence at about the same time you gain awareness of them.

Now imagine that instead of having a set of headphones on your head that is fed from Sony Walkman, you are accompanied in the open air by a group of between two and six musicians, all accompanying themselves using whatever acoustic (that is, non-electrically powered) instruments, devices, accessories, tools best describe and reproduce the music that describes you. This may take a while to imagine, and of course, at different times, the group may be composed of different and perhaps interchangeable individuals and/or attachments. Chances are you’ll have several varying groups, but at least one or two. Now imagine the body of work that they might perform. It might be songs from the radio, ambient sounds, religious hymns, classical works, etc., etc. At least one of the songs must be an original work (exactly how original is always going to be a problem, it always has been, but I think the nature of the problem will probably change in the future), the performance of which you take an active part whenever it comes into rotation, or by request, whichever comes first. Since this discourse will get confusing unless we somehow divide its parts into recognizable segments, let’s call this first imaginary product in the course of this analogy “The Soundtrack of Your Life.” Don’t worry if you think you might have left something out – there’s going to be ample opportunity in the future to expand your repertoire.

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Letters to a Young Picker

or Free Your Mind and Your Chops Will Follow:

EVERYTHING is a matter of personal taste. Nobody gets “great ears” without playing badly with their betters (betters who are willing to accept a lot of bad notes, ideas or tangents as the price to be paid for developing new talent).

If somebody sells a lot of records, that helps everybody else (to some degree). That means people are interested in adding music to the soundtrack of their lives. And you can’t change the way people think about or listen to music if they’re not listening to or thinking about it to begin with.

What were the “classics” when they were written? Weren’t they all experimental to some extent? The appeal of music is that it contains universal themes that are at their heart, extremely and uniquely personal experiences.

What makes a song a classic is that people connect to it and relate it to their own experience. And that takes time and not much else. But remember, before classical music was “classical”, ol’ J.S. Bach was just improvising on the organ (to feed his dozen odd children). Mozart was writing what came into his head. They made it up as they went along.

Minds are like parachutes – they only function when open. There’s much to be learned from absorbing the “classics,” but you’ve got to eventually squeeze the sponge – and all the water might not end up in the sink.

The quality of the instrument you’re holding doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. It’s the quality of the instrument that YOU are that does. Each note tells a story, so be careful not to talk too much – the more you know, the more choices you have, the more challenging your role. When you set standards rather than just playing them, then you’re great – and it doesn’t matter how many years you’ve been on the road, or how many “name” acts you’ve played with.

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Idols and Influences, continued

OK, so the previous set of idols and influences ended with 1977. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring the subsequent years and the albums/artists that shaped my world as a Musician. Included will be the following, identified in chronological (i.e., the year I discovered them) order:

Here’s the high school years 🙂

News of the World, Queen
Aladdin Sane, David Bowie
Passions of a Man, Charles Mingus
Giant Steps, John Coltrane
Harbor, America
Five Live Yardbirds, The Yardbirds
Only a Lad, Oingo Boingo
Brain Salad Surgery, Emerson Lake & Palmer
Never Mind the Bollocks, The Sex Pistols
Bayou Country, Creedence Clearwater Revival
We Sold Our Souls for Rock and Roll, Black Sabbath
Fragile, Yes
New Values, Iggy Pop
The Wake of Poseidon, King Crimson
The Best of Lou Reed, Lou Reed
Double Fantasy, John Lennon/Yoko Ono

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