Miles!

by SteveHulse on February 27, 2020 · 2 comments

I saw a good documentary on the life of Miles Davis the other night. It hit me
pretty hard, and reminded me of our inter-connectedness, not to mention
bringing back a fine batch of memories!

How does a black guy from East Saint Louis influence the life of a white boy
in Montana? I had an aunt once, Aunt Mabel, who used to smile at me when I
asked her a question. She’d say, “Stevie, that’s the sixty four thousand dollar
question!”

Yes, back in the ’40’s and early ’50’s there was a radio show called, you
guessed it… the $64,000 question. Now my question isn’t worth much,
partly because I already know the answer. And I will share it with you if you’re
willing to give me 5-10 minutes of your time. It’s not a great story by any
stretch, but I’m telling it anyway. Occasionally, some of these stories just
have to be told…

Why Miles? And how? Easy. A winter’s night at the U. of Montana in Jan. ’64,
a dorm room, a sophomore music student flunking out, mostly for lack of interest
in the classical agenda the school was selling, in hopes of making teachers
of us. I was playing a new Miles Davis album I’d bought earlier in the day, and
was drinking a warm beer, hitting a golf ball into a paper cup across the dorm
room and listening to my new album.

I didn’t like Miles at first. In my defense, I’d been listening to Andre Previn and
Al Hirt, for christ’s sake! Think about it… jazz in Montana back then?? You had
to really look for it. Anyway, the album was Someday My Prince Will Come. It
was a Wynton Kelly solo that got me. I’ll never forget it. I played that solo over
and over that night, and knew that’s the way I wanted to make the piano sound.

That night changed the direction of my life. Because of that album and Wynton’s
superb playing, I ended up at the Berklee School Of Music in Boston, and that
changed everything!

Berklee opened all the jazz doors, new players, new heroes, new ways to
play… it was fairly mind-blowing. I learned nearly as much from my fellow
students on the coffee breaks in the first two years! After all, they were mostly
Eastern city guys who had already heard many of the jazz greats live, while I
hadn’t even heard of them. I’d heard a Louis Armstrong concert live in late ’63
and it was by far the best thing I’d every heard live! Just so you know, the only
other live name I’d ever heard in concert live was when Faron Young came to
our high school. I know… “Who the hell is Faron Young?” Never mind.

I was absorbing these new names and all these new sounds, songs and players.
And I heard Miles live at the Jazz Workshop in Boston in ’66! I still wasn’t wild
about Miles… he turned his back to the audience about half the time. But his
band, his band!! They were incredible, and they lit me up in ways I’d never felt
before! Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock. I totally
loved everything that Herbie played back then, he was my new hero. From that
band I learned so much… that my time would never be as good or as fluid as
theirs; that I would always be way more stuck on the chord structure of a tune
than they were at that point; and that the raw, unrestrained brilliance I heard
in their playing was not in me… nor was it likely to ever be. I am forever grateful
to Miles and that band for that knowledge, though it hurt somewhat at the time.

Over the years I’ve grown to love nearly everything Miles ever did. He lost me,
of course, when he went electric in the ’70’s, but who cared? By then I had seven
or eight albums of great bands he had brewed through the ’50’s and ’60’s. My
favorites are what nearly everyone’s favorites are – Someday, Kind Of Blue, and
Seven Steps To Heaven.

——————————————

Some 43 years after my epiphany in the dorm room, I was, once again, back
in Montana, in my cabin, living through a particularly rough winter… lots of
snow, wind, and below-zero weather. Sitting in front of my crackling wood stove,
faithful Jameson’s close at hand, I was reminiscing about music and my career,
and it occurred to me that I had played standards all my life… that if someone
asked me to play, for instance, a Miles Tune any more complex than Footprints,
I wouldn’t be able to do it… I simply couldn’t hear most complex chord changes
that weren’t built around II-V’s. Wait, I could play Chick Corea’s Crystal Silence.
But that wasn’t a hard tune, really. Who did the hard, complex tunes? Ah, Miles,
of course! The first Miles CD I found was Nefertiti. Fair enough. I put it on,
refilled my glass and sat back down to see if the years of playing had sharpened
my ear to the point where I could learn to play a couple of these tunes by ear.
Ha! No way in hell. So I began searching through my Miles Albums for some of
his obtuse tunes that I might have a chance of figuring out. Came up with a
pretty decent list of nine songs that I would have to listen to over and over to
figure out. Knowing winters in Montana usually last ’til May at least, I knew I had
the time… it was still February. So, in a few days, I began a project to learn and
record in my little studio there, the nine songs I’d picked out.

It wasn’t easy, but Ron Carer’s bass helped me analyze a lot of it. Herbie’s
cluster chords… not so much sometimes. But by the middle of the third song
my ear was reaching further, understanding more, and the deeper I got into
the project, the more fun it became. I ended up doing Mascualero, Footprints,
Pee Wee, Prince Of Darkness, Drad Dog, Eight One, Fall, E.S.P. and Iris.

Several funny realizations came to me during this project. One was that my
interp of these Miles tunes was so soft, so simple, almost as if to make Miles’
tunes a hip form of elevator music! My god, we didn’t want that, now, did we?
but there it was. I realized that Miles’ recordings of these (and many other)
tunes had a hard edge to them, even a darkness, that was totally missing in
my interpretations. The mystery in his versions was gone, the insanely deep
and wonderful playing of his band was gone… and without that, well, in my
mind, the tunes simply weren’t that good. Oh sure, they were loose, wildly
different and open to great solo opportunities. But they weren’t Richard
Rogers… and there you have it. Miles tunes were largely not memorable.
did not bring with them any warm fuzzies, and were basically the polar
opposite of most popular music.

Along this line, i also learned that I could hear strings in almost every song
I tried to play or record. So I put some strings on a few of the Miles Tunes…
sacrilege!! but I did it, because I heard it. And what I did in the end is turn a
hard knife edge into a warm marshmallow! Not what I’d intended at all, but
that was certainly the result.

Anyway, I learned the songs, recorded them and soloed on them as best
I could. Turned out my original thought was correct, I’m fine in the world of
II-V’s, but throw me into the world of non-logical chord progression, and of
multiple time signatures, and you might as well throw me to the wolves! I
may not be a bonefied jazz player, but please don’t ever call me a smooth
jazz player!

Here is my version of Fall.

Did I ever learn to play as well as Wynton Kelly? No, goddamnit! But I’m
still trying…

Steve Hulse

{ 2 comments }

If You Love What You Do…

by SteveHulse on February 25, 2020 · 7 comments

You’ll never work a day in your life. We’ve all heard that one, and there’s a
lot of truth in it. However, it’s one of those feel-good generalizations that
sound great but aren’t entirely true, at least not for anyone I know. Don’t
tell me you’ve spent even as little as a year in music (or any artistic endeavor
for that matter) without some days that it was hard… that it was work. That
just wouldn’t be possible.

Let’s do a quick differentiation of doing music vs work. Easy. If it isn’t fun,
you’re probably working. If you’d rather be doing something else, somewhere
else, you’re probably working. And if you’re working, you’re probably not
playing. Keep in mind that sweating doesn’t necessarily mean one is
working. I’ve been in some warm rooms with hot bands, and we were all
sweating… and loving it!

As to sweating, however, it is work if you’re carrying in a Fender Rhodes
Suitcase, an amp and twin speakers, plus your seat and a cord bag. I did that
in Atlanta from time to time, and in 90 degree weather, with 80% humidity,
you will sweat. And it is work. Ever get sweaty in a tux? It sucks, doesn’t it?

Doing theory classes, melody-writing classes and theory classes in music
school? Wonderful. But homework assignments in all 12 keys, every time?
Sit up ’til 3:30 a.m. writing melody assignments in all 12 keys and tell me it
wasn’t work. And staying up writing an arrangement ’til 5 in the morning, then
having to copy the parts so it could be played that morning for a 10 a.m. session?
Sorry, I did it, several times, and it was work. Even throwing on a sport coat
and tie to drive downtown for a creative meeting in an ad agency was work,
for me. I hated it. But it was all part of getting to the meat and potatoes of
music, which I dearly loved, and that made it all possible.

Advertising deadlines could be brutal, and I can almost hear you say, “You
didn’t have to take the job.” True, but remember, we’re talking about the
music business here, and you know as well as I that you don’t say “no” to
any opportunity to make music for money. It only takes a couple of “no’s”
even in a large city to stop your phone from ringing.

I’ve backed a few vocalists in my day that felt a lot like work. I’ve written some
jingles exactly the way the client demanded, and it was definitely work. I’ve
had jingle clients stand right behind me at my keyboard and make me play
ideas for their jingle until they heard one they liked. I always hated that, and
It was work… on several levels.

But that’s how it is for any job, any activity in which one gets employed to
provide a service. None of them are perfect, and I would argue that being a
musician comes as close to perfection as any of them. Why? Because we
love what we do, and right there we’ve put ourselves in probably the top
15% (or less!) of all people who work for a living. How many times have you
heard someone say, “Damn, I wish I’d stuck with the piano when I was young!”
Or, “I would love to be able to play the guitar like you!” Or, “I’d give anything
to be able to play the drums the way…” well, maybe not that one. Heh heh.

But it’s true. For all the other BS we have to go through, at the end of it all,
we get to do our music! What a reward! And if you might, by chance, feel that
the check at the end of the gig is more of a reward than doing the music itself,
then we need to talk. I know, I know, you can’t “eat’ jazz, your can’t fill your
tank with a glorious sweep of sixteenth notes on an altered dominant 7th…
I’ve heard all that. I’ve also been told that there’s not much work to be had in
Montana, and “You can’t eat the scenery…” But if music weren’t the main thing
in your life, I mean really “the main thing,” then you probably wouldn’t be in
music full time… or shouldn’t be. And it might even be that you wouldn’t be that
good anyway, because making a living as a musician takes a lot of time, effort
and dedication, not to mention there is competition for musicians as there is for
any professional endeavor, and if you’re not at least a little better than average,
you probably won’t get much work.

There are countless diversions, god knows, for us all in this crazy life. Hell, I
did other things than music to make a buck from time to time. I was a location
sound recorder for a small film company. I was a production stills photographer
for an ad agency. I was the music contractor for the Burt Reynolds movie,
Sharkey’s Machine. I taught meditation seminars for Nurses in Georgia for
The Center For Nursing Leadership. That’s a whole ‘nother story. That went
off and on for several years. I gave talks at Emery U. in Atlanta and at REI
on wetlands conservation. So yes, I’ve strayed from my main love, for money. Responsibility is a strong motivator… aka a wife and kid!

My only defense is, if you want to be an self-employed composer and musician,
you best be ready to do anything that comes along, as there’s no security in
being self-employed. Remember, every time you finish a job, you’re basically
fired!

There are fine musicians who have forgone a potentially great music career
in exchange for the security of a steady job, insurance, enough money to
send their kids to college, etc. And they might love music every bit as much
as I do. Usually their priorities lie with their family. I acknowledge that and
respect the hell out of them. It has to be hard, because much music, and
especially jazz, can be powerfully addictive. Some guys I know had steady
jobs and played only on weekends… pretty smart, the best of both worlds,
in a way. I couldn’t have done that… my addictive personality wouldn’t have
allowed it. In any event, I now bid a fond farewell (and the tag of “bullshit”)
to the well-worn, and downright wrong phrase, “Love what you do and you’ll
never work a day in your life.” Simply not even remotely close to true. I loved
what I did all my life and worked my butt off in the process. ‘Nuff said.

Steve Hulse

{ 7 comments }

Remembering Lyle Mays

by SteveHulse February 19, 2020

Lyle Mays died last week. At 66. Just in case you thought life was fair… I am now convinced that only the good die young. Which means I’m safe for the foreseeable future. Pat Metheny and a host of other people who loved him and worked with him over the years have already written beautiful […]

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The Peruvian Blues

by SteveHulse February 17, 2020

Yes, I’ve got them. Sounds a little strange, I know. Have you ever been there? If you have, maybe you understand. Because it’s not just your run of the mill blues… It goes a little deeper, it’s a cultural thing. Kind of hard to explain, actually. Peru often weaves a sort of a spell into […]

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Experience… The Best Teacher?

by SteveHulse February 7, 2020

It’s funny, the things experience teaches us, as opposed to all the info we get over the years from teachers, books, and our musical peers. Trial and error, acceptance and rejection, praise and criticism, success and failure… these are some of the elements that come from experience, that pick up where “book learnin’” leaves off. […]

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A Short Winter’s Cruise

by SteveHulse January 24, 2020

Today, the news of the day and the quiet time following New Year’s Day have driven me back out on the sound on my trusty craft, The Aimless. A quiet, peaceful holiday with good friends is as good as it gets for me. January can be a let-down after the 3-month build-up of the Christmas […]

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A Name Game

by SteveHulse January 12, 2020

Thought we’d start out the new year with something light and easy. God knows it’ll get crazy soon enough. In our travels up and down this island i’ve noticed the names of the roads, lanes and paths that connect to the main island highway. Many of them are typically nautical, with some almost painting a […]

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Of A Winter’s Eve – A Musician’s Tale.

by SteveHulse December 23, 2019

Once upon a winter’s eve, an old gentleman was sitting in front of his wood stove, deep into a cold night in Montana. His cabin was warm, the fire crackled. He had pulled up his chair to the stove, as he often did, on the colder nights. His legs stretched out toward the little stove’s […]

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‘Tis The Season

by SteveHulse December 13, 2019

Am re-posting a memory I shared several years ago… it still holds my thoughts of the season, and of the times in which we now live. This is an experiment on my part, not sure it will work. Simply click on the address below and my Christmas post should appear. If it does, hope you […]

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Karma!

by SteveHulse November 26, 2019

Is it just a word? Is it just an idea? Or is it a perceivable force? Whatever, it’s one of those invisible powers/concepts that one must pretty much believe in, or not. For some of us, it’s almost like a religion… no, a spirituality, that “what goes around, comes around” really works, and that by […]

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