Picture a shock of white hair flowing like a waterfall from a Greek fisherman’s cap, or a pimp hat that might’ve been on loan from Huggy Bear. Imagine army or prison-issue glasses and a collection of actual vintage t-shirts riddled with holes and stains. Think of a man who, at the retirement age of 65, revels in his own magnificent profanity, straight-out-of-detention sense of humor, teaching skills and historical footprint. This is Don Stratton, ensemble leader and Professor of music theory and composition and trumpet at the University of Maine at Augusta.
Walk into Stratton’s office on campus: it is a mad dervish of vinyl, books and staves of music paper. The walls are covered with personalized 8x10s of Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan and other legends that the good professor has played with over the years, all hanging at cock-eyed angles and threatening to jump. Good luck finding a seat, but if you can, sit down and let’s bullshit. This is the office of a beautiful mind, one in which the left hemisphere was T-boned and totaled, while the right hemisphere hit the gas and floored it.
In class he sits at the piano, mumbling through breakdowns of Parker and Miles, Schoenberg and Ives. Stories: he’s got a million of ‘em. But they’re always completely relevant to the lesson, and never just obnoxious name-dropping.
Stratton is absolutely passionate about getting us inside the mind of the composer, and inside the composition. One assignment has us transcribing Wayne Shorter’s sax solo on “Eighty-One” from the Miles Davis album E.S.P. But the assignment is to transcribe just the rhythm, not the notes, so we can really get into the feel and phrasing.
He also teaches us how to feel rhythm by reading us the poetry of Robert Creeley. I am transfixed by the beatnik-y looking guy with the dead eye on the cover of The Collected Poems: 1945-1975, but I’m even more transfixed by the fact that I am actually hearing jazz phrasing and syncopation in the words. A life of aural and literal association and striving starts here.
Our final project is to transcribe every note of every instrument of a Charlie Parker composition. I choose the live version of “Hot House” from Massey Hall, Toronto, 1953, with Parker, Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Bud Powell on piano, Charles Mingus on bass and Max Roach on drums. I earn an A, and a note stating, “one of the best transcriptions I’ve ever seen.” I am buoyed for years.
One semester I land in Stratton’s Django Reinhardt ensemble. Myself, taking on the brilliant guitar parts of the two-fingered gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, plus a violinist playing the Stephane Grappelli parts, plus bass and drums. It’s a dream gig, and I’m getting graded on it.
Stratton is an active bandleader, and one of the most unique teachers I’ve ever been blessed with. When he wants the band to swing and accent the off beats, he counts us off, “AH one cha chah AH two cha chah AH youknowwhattoDO cha chah.” Hearing those accented AH’s makes us hit the up-beat every time.
And he knows exACTly how to reach all of us individually. Our bass player is maybe 19, and sees himself as more of a funk player than a jazz player. One day he starts noodling, getting further and further out of the pocket. Professor Don Stratton, 65 and with a nearly fifty-year career in the background, stops the band and says, “Y’know, what you’re playing is great? But it’s kind of like fucking a gorgeous chick, and then in the middle whipping it out and going to town on yourself.” Message received, personalities disarmed, hilariously. We are all one band, all on equal footing.
I have been touched by many remarkable personalities over the course of my life. Professor Don Stratton taught me how to swing, and how FEEL rhythm. He taught me how to deconstruct and reconstruct a song. And he taught me how to connect with my peers and how to embrace being a free spirit, not afraid to be a little different.