My favorite size group to play jazz in has always been the piano trio. The comfort zone is, for me, off the charts. The trio is intimate, wildly creative at times while covering nearly every style of music one can imagine. The conversation and spontaneity between piano, bass and drums can be electric at times, elevating the song and its accompanying emotion, along with its players, to a higher level. Once experienced, that “high” that comes with the occasional music magic, can be totally addicting!
The kind of music that is played, and the size of the group usually dictate how different players perform within them. A drummer in a rock band, for instance, usually needs to lay down a heavy beat, and can be loud and aggressive, keeping the energy up. The smaller the group a drummer plays in, the more sensitive to rhythm and dynamics he/she must be. Drummers are laughing right now at my over-simplification. But it’s true… the smaller the group, especially in jazz, (generally speaking) the more creative and spontaneous the drummer can be.
I’ve played with some amazing drummers. And bass players. Drummers, Reid Jorgensen, James Martin, Billy Degnats, Jeremy Slead, Yonrico Scott, Scott Meeder, Harvey Mason, Johnny M. Clark and Sonny Emory. The guy I want to tell you about, however, and play for you, is Craig Herndon.
Our Dear Friend, Craig
In honor of Craig, I must tell a brief story. There’s a small group of us jazzers who were all roommates in Boston at one time, in an apartment on, where else… Symphony Road. Jon Lodge, another Montana boy, trumpet player. Now there’s a story. Paul Miller, a bass player from New Hampshire, who was studying art at an art institute in Boston. Craig, of course, and me. Peter Puppy Breath rolled in for the weekend occasionally, but that’s yet another story.
Steve, Jon & Craig, graduation day, ’67
We were all doing some occasionally recreational drugs back then, and one night we came home to find Craig, standing in the middle of the living room in his underwear. We took a picture, him standing there, grinning, peeking out from behind a plastic fern we had. We nicknamed him “Fern” that night, and it stuck. He will be “Fern” for the rest of this article, as that’s how he was known from that moment on, by all of us who knew him and loved him.
I first met Fern in Boston, when we were both going to Berklee. He was playing with a vibist, Don Moors, and I got hired to play a gig or two with Don’s band. Fern and I became great friends, were roomies for two years, and stayed in touch for many years, until his death 3 years ago.
After school, Fern and I lived in different apartments in an apartment building on Beacon Hill. I would leave for a gig in the late afternoon to frequently find Fern with his then huge Afro, sitting on the sidewalk outside the building with headphones attached to a Walkman, a beer in his hand. He had a big afro back then, quite a sight! At that point in time, he was already a far better musician than the rest of us. He would get frustrated because we couldn’t play any of the frantic tempos he was so comfortable with. Fern was easily good enough to make a major contribution to any big-name jazz group in the country… he simply had no interest in becoming either rich or famous. He was, you might say, “in the flow” of whatever was going on at the moment.
The short story on Fern is that he grew up in a fairly poor family in Georgia, discovered drums and chased jazz and live performing until he was a little over 30. He and the bass player, Paul Miller, and I all went to a Maharishi meditation center one weekend and learned to meditate… the Maharishi way. Paul and I drifted away from it after a time, but Fern stuck with it, and it ended up changing his life in a huge way. After playing with Fern for a year or so after he graduated, he got with a Swedish group and traveled Europe for several years, playing and recording with that band. While over there, he met the Marharishi himself, continued his meditation studies and became a meditation teacher. At that point he came back to the States, put his drums away and moved to Westwood, in L. A. to teach meditation with his wife, Lyn Gale. At that point I lost touch with him. and found out later he taught meditation, and played no drums at all, for 28 years.
Lyn Gale died early on with ovarian cancer, and as I understand it, Fern finally ended up in a small town in Iowa, where the American Maharishi center was located. He was living in a trailer, had taken his drums out of the cases after all that time and had begun playing and practicing again… to records. I still picture him sitting in his littler trailer, somewhere in a drink water town in the great midwest, playing to records with headphones on, remembering and learning to play jazz and to love it again. It breaks my heart when I think about it.
My memory is fuzzy on this next part, mostly because it’s so unlikely. I was living in Decatur, Georgia, with my wife and young son. My wife, Lisa, had a workout studio in the basement of our house there, and a lady named Sarah McKoy was one of her clients. You know how the girls are, they chat about anything and everything while they’re together, in much more depth than we guys usually do. Somehow, Sarah, who lived about six blocks or so from us, had met Craig online and had begun emailing with him… then flew up to Gutwrench, Iowa, to meet him in person.
They hit it off, and somehow, while Sarah was telling this story to Lisa, Craig’s name came up and I became aware of it. Naturally I couldn’t believe it was MY Craig Herndon… no, that would be too unbelievable. But it was!
This was Fern & Sarah’s Wedding Day
Before long Fern moved down to Decatur and we were re-united, after some 30+ years. He had brought his drums down to Georgia with him and we actually began playing together again! Paul was living in Atlanta as well, and the old group got together on many fine occasions and played in Fern’s music room, which they had fixed up on the top floor of their home. My god, but life can be so strange!
We have the luxury of several recordings of Paul & I playing with Fern, some 33 years apart! I want to play two of them for you… this first one from Boston, Natural Sound Studios, in 1970. This is Footprints, a Wayne Shorter tune. Paul Miller plays bass, Jon Lodge plays trumpet.
This next one is Getting Sentimental Over You. Lyn Deramus plays bass on this cut. Listen to their sensitivity, creativity.
From the time Fern and I were roomies, then again when we were reconnected, he always encouraged me to listen to, and try to play, music from composers I didn’t like. He wanted me to listen to more Monk… I wouldn’t. He wanted me to listen to, and play, more Randy Weston, I didn’t. He encouraged me to listen to more Donald Byrd… I didn’t like him, didn’t want to listen to him, didn’t want to even learn to like him. In truth, Fern was a lover of all music, and found quality in all idioms. Somehow, Fern always had an openness to different styles and concepts, an openness that seemed to increase during his years of teaching meditation and growing his personal spirituality.
And so it was, that one of the last times I saw Fern, he sat me down with a glass of wine and quietly, solemnly told me what he wanted me to do. He wasn’t bossy, he wasn’t passionate, just direct and focused. “Stevie,” he started, “I want you to do something for me.”
“What I want you to do,” he continued, “is learn a song and play it for me.”
Sounded easy enough, except that I knew too well how eclectic Fern’s taste was. His gentle intensity was fascinating. “What song, Fern?”
The name rang a bell. “Wait, wasn’t that an actress in some old movies?”
Fern didn’t smile, and his voice was still low. “Yes. Now Stevie, promise me you’ll learn Ida Lupino and play it for me.”
I had no clue why this was so important to him, but I knew it was. “Okay, Fern. I will.”
I read about Ida Lupino, and have seen two of her movies. Britannica says, “English-born American film and television actress, director, and screenwriter who first gained fame through her portrayals of strong, worldly-wise characters and went on to become one of the first women to direct films in Hollywood.”
Another review sees her this way: “Ida Lupino, an earthy, intelligent movie actress who created a luminous gallery of worldly wise villainesses, gangster’s molls and hand-wringing neurotics.” For Carla Bley, the song writer, IMBD.com says, “Musician Paul Bley recorded a song in honor of her entitled “Ida Lupino”, composed by his then-wife Carla Bley, for his 1965 album “Closer”.
The movies I saw Lupino in portrayed her as a tough, fast-talking smart, well-traveled female who wasn’t all that feminine. She could be flirty, but that definitely wasn’t a strength… her eyes consistency revealed a devious intent behind her occasional flirting. Even I know that look, as I’m sure all my guy friends do as well. She played smart and somewhat mysterious parts… I give her that. But look at her volume of work – google her … it’s impressive.
Ultimately, I saw, or maybe felt, and amazingly intelligent woman who was born at the wrong time. She exploited her abilities to the max, while dealing with a man’s world on a daily basis.
Fern passed away before I learned, and played Ida Lupino. I have felt bad about that from time to time, and have decided to honor his memory with my recorded version of Ida. Never did find out why this seemed so important to him, but I knew he had a reason. He had a reason for everything. Carla Bley, composer of the piece, did the most obtuse version of it you can imagine… it’s on youtube. Great players, horrible home-spun recording. Obvious that, outside of the opening melody, the whole rest of the tune is up for grabs. Perhaps that is what Fern was going for… to get me to dig into myself, to do my own individual interpretation of this strange and somewhat melancholy tune. Well Fern, if that’s what you had in mind, I have dug into it. And here’s what I got –
And now I know why he wanted me to play it for him. He knew my playing my comfort zone, and he knew this tune was outside that comfort zone. He wanted to stretch me, plain and simple. And it worked. It worked, except for the fact that I’m 77 now, and don’t really give a damn whether I stretch or not. I only played it once, today, but I’ve practiced it a dozen times in my head.
I finally played it for you, Fern. And as i was playing it today, I realized that the song was as much about you as it was Ida Lupino. I don’t pretend to understand so many of these moments in life… moments when we know something, but can’t explain it. What I discovered about you today Fern, while playing Ida Lupino, is something I’ve kind of known about you for a long time. The song simply assured me that I’ve been right. You were always an elevated being, Fern. You were always with us, yet somehow apart from us. You knew more about life, love, spirituality and music than any of us. You were always outside yourself, never telling us how it was for you, but rather asking how everything was with us.
If there’s a spirit world, another dimension, anything like that, I think Fern heard my “Ida” today. Matter of fact, I know he did, because I thought I heard him say, “Not bad, Stevie, That’s a good start.”