Immersion


Image Source: UMA

I was never more culturally awake and alive than I was during my four years at UMA. On the surface, the University of Maine at Augusta was not much more than a sleepy community-college-esque hub campus in the University of Maine system. Oh, but what lies beneath the surface.

From my sophomore year in high school on I was in (marching) band and jazz band. Our marching band played football games every Saturday, and we were mortifyingly bad. Combine nobody-ever-practiced-to-save-their-ass with cheesy songbook featuring “Iron Man”, “Paranoid” and “Smoke on the Water.” Add fire-engine-red polyester coats and hats with plumes, and the fact that I had a kid hauling my bass amp around in a wheelbarrow with a generator. You can see how the band missed nearly every touchdown because its members were off in the woods stealing a smoke, copping a feel or doing ANYthing but sitting ready on the risers.

On the weekends I was in the heavy metal band Rampage. Yes, I named the band and nicked our logo slightly from Metallica, the band that supplied half of our repertoire. We played a few talent shows and keg parties, to absolutely glorious and hideously ignoble results.

By the time I entered my sophomore year of 1988/1989, I was burning out on metal, and my old Smiths, Smithereens and R.E.M. influences were kicking in. But more than anything, thanks to our psychotic friend Dana, I was getting into Bix Beiderbecke, Glenn Miller and eventually Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.

I’ve fictionalized Dana in this essay, but it’s all true, including the soundtrack. Thanks to Dana I started listening religiously to Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz on NPR every Sunday night, and I heard a lot of greats. So all these disparate influences started to coalesce around 1989, and by the time I got to UMA in 1991, I was so ready.

Immediately I started absorbing the jazz history and theory lessons of the esteemed Thelonious Monk scholar Gary Wittner. Immediately I started sucking in the ear-training wisdom of Chuck Winfield, who played trumpet with Blood Sweat & Tears and Babs on Broadway. Immediately I gave in to the brilliance of the aforementioned Don Stratton.

I studied Latin percussion with Alberto Del Gado, who was in the original Skitch Henderson Tonight Show band. I took guitar lessons from Gary Clancy, who produced The Joe Perry Project and played with Tiny Tim. I sat in with visiting clinician Eddie Gomez, who played bass on numerous Bill Evans Trio records, and with Milt Hinton, who played bass with Cab Calloway and Dizzy Gillespie, along with Jackie Gleason and Dick Cavett.

I played in student teacher ensambles every semester, sharing the universal language with amazing players. Every semester I had to get a band together and play a song in Jewett Hall for recital lab. Often this turned into a last-minute-miracle affair of finding anybody who was available, picking a standard at random and sight-reading live. And it always turned out great.

For four years I lived and breathed and beCAME jazz. And at the same time I was playing the Augusta circuit in a Grateful Dead/Phish/Zappa cover band, so I was seriously oozing chops.

By the time I was supposed to be close to graduation, I realized that I was slightly lacking in academics, and I was completely burned out. I took a semester off, and transferred to my dream school, Berklee College of Music in Boston in September 1996. The dream left me disillusioned, and I spent the next few years adrift, lost to depression.

But eventually I would right my course, and the lessons – tangible and spiritual – that I absorbed during those four magical years at UMA would stay with me for the rest of my days. It was a full-on mind, body and soul immersion in the American song book, and I can’t imagine my life without it..

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17 comments
  1. a gripping life said:

    So what are you really saying here, that you enjoy music?

    • I suppose that *could* be one interpretation? ;P

  2. It sounds like you are naturally driven in the direction of music, any kind of music any time. That is a gift, but very difficult in a place like Berklee, where the competitive nature is at the highest level. My nephew, left after his sophomore year to pursue his passion. The cut throat drive of some, was sucking the joy out of the music for him. It’s funny because he is big Jazz fan as well. I gave him a ride when he was about 17 to see an old time jazz guitarist, I can’t think of his name. When we got there I had no idea I would be dropping this kid, who looks like Slash, off amongst a crowd of 50 plus year old black men.
    Thank goodness for the Danas’ of this world who have the ability to open our eyes just a little bit more to make us better!

    • Yeah, Berklee is a factory. It’s all about pumping up the image of prestige. Walk into the cafeteria and there’s a wall of CDs from “Esteemed Alumni” like Paula Cole (took vocal lessons), Donald Fagen (HONORARY degree holder), Juliana Hatfield (she may have burped in a practice room once)…meanwhile I was 24 at the time, surrounded by all these 17-year-old Japanese prodogy, and I got completely swallowed up…

      • So true! Prodigies are highly over rated. I need to listen to someone with some soul. There are some street performers that I would pay to see over a prodigy.

      • Boston is a great busking city!

  3. Normand Albert said:

    Rampage shout out!!! AWWWW YEAHHHHHHH!!! No Dirty Trixx here!!! All kidding aside, great story.

    • OooooooooohhhhhhhhhhYEAH!!! Let’s be clueless!

      • Yes, Normand Albert was also in Rampage…

  4. You need to write a theme song for your blog. That would be uber cool.

    • Nah, I’ll just co-opt the Doogie Howser theme instead.

  5. Sounds like you are very musically talented. You planning on doing more with it? America idol/talent, etc? lol

    • Um, noooooooooo. ;D

  6. Driven by a muse you followed to a natural outcome, I get that I did that also. Now, after resting heart and soul the outcome shifts a bit so you can reabsorb the lessons and the learning, wonderful storytelling.

    • I’m all in!

  7. John S said:

    If the right words existed, music wouldn’t need to…

    Music is the answer. Stick with it. The quote above is from a brilliant novel called ‘Black Swan Green” by David Mitchell, a British writer. I think you might like it because it also deals with the ordeals of school life, which you’ve written about so eloquently recently. And Mitchell’s other novels are also fantastic.

    • Holy Christcakes, I am SO getting this book! Thanks, mate!

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