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..