Up The Down Staircase… Of Life!

“It was the best of times, it was…” No, that’s wrong. It was never the worst of times. There were, at the very worst, a few difficult times, but that was about it. So many good times, high times, that I never considered the possibility that I might have made the wrong choice.

The old brain positively buzzes about, remembering so many good times, in these times of quiet isolation. What to write about? What to tell you? What’s interesting to others? God, there must be something. And there is…

I think most of us would agree that the birth of our children is the #1 high point of our lives. Certainly is for me. Professional high points are a different matter, and vary greatly from profession to profession. Here is a high point and a low point for a musician.

Standing in the rain, outside the Boston train depot, on a day in September, 1964. Two suitcases in hand, no idea where the Berklee School of Music was, no idea how to get there, no idea where I was going to spend the night. I remember thinking, “man, I might have really done it this time. This might be the worst idea I’ve ever had! Wonder if it’s a harbinger of things to come…” There is another story here, which I’ll save for the next post.

A low time that always comes to mind happened during my junior year at Berklee. My roommate at the time had just quit school and left town; I couldn’t find a replacement in the middle of the year, so I was invited to move in with Keith Green, a trombone and trumpet player extraordinaire, who was an all-around good guy and saw I was in a jam. He was living, at the time, in a tiny, almost empty apartment in a rough section of Boston. His bed was in the living room/kitchen so he gave me the tiny bedroom off the kitchen. Four walls and one window which looked out at a grim, gray alley. I had a mattress on the floor and my suitcase in the corner, with a few dirty clothes piled on it. There was a poster of a ski jumper I had stuck up on the wall opposite the mattress, so I’d have something to look at in the morning that didn’t depress me.

I had no car, as my ’55 Ford had the tires stolen off it in the night, and the Boston Police had it hauled away two days later, never to be seen again. The walk to school was a bit over a mile, but we didn’t mind it. As grim as Keith’s pad was, I knew it was only a 3-month deal and that I had some new roomies lined up for the summer and my senior year. But that Spring was a bumpy one. There weren’t any gigs for me at the moment and I ran out of money. I always kept enough in my modest bank account there to buy a bus ticket home… just in case. I never once touched that stash.

But there was that one week when I was totally strapped. nothing but a little change in my pocket. I went into a store to get a little something to eat with the change I had left. Who knows why – for some reason I bought a bag of cheese popcorn for the exact amount of cash I had. Took it back to Keith’s apt. and put it in the fridge… this was on a Tuesday. I didn’t eat that week until I got back from school on Friday night. I knew the cheese popcorn was in the fridge, and I had saved it until the week of school was over. I remember sitting down and eating that bag of popcorn, kernel by kernel. It was so good! Didn’t fill me up, but it sure helped! And it’s weird, as rough as everything was for me then, I was so happy to have saved that cheese popcorn!

My roomie, Keith Green, became the conductor for the blue Barnum & Bailey Circus for years. I met him several times during those years when the circus came through Atlanta, and he always had hilarious stories to tell – his job, his marriages… I went to the circus once and saw him. He was terrific, conducting his band and playing the trumpet along with them at the same time.

That was the bottom of my Boston barrel. Strangely, it was barely two years later when i hit one of the high points of my life! But life is like that, isn’t it? I had (almost) graduated, yet another story for another time, and had been playing several nights a week at a back bay club called “Mother’s.” We had a good little group there… Lenny – on bass , Reid Jorgensen on drums, and Jimmy Helms on trumpet and vocals. Jimmy was a powerhouse singer, and a fine jazz trumpet player as well. Loaded with personality, he built a nice following for himself, and soon he had an agent, Buck Spurr, and began getting opportunities outside of Mother’s. (Yet another story for another time!) One of the most memorable was a week we flew down to New York for Jimmy’s audition for the stage version of Golden Boy. That in itself was a totally unique experience for both of us!

Clark Terry, Bob Brookmeyer

This one particular night was such a high point for me. We started out at the Playboy Club, had drinks and enjoyed the Clark Terry/Bob Brookmeyer Quintet! What a kick! Then dinner at the famous Waldorf Hotel and good seats there for the opening of the Waldorf’s “Winter Season of Entertainment” starring Diahann Carroll. After her show we were taken upstairs to her suite and were introduced to her at her door. I went back to my hotel room that night thinking that New York was easily the most magical city on the planet! And this barely two years after the cheese popcorn!

Diahann Carroll

Years later my favorite cities became Paris and Florence,  but I’ll never forget the fantastic times I had back then in The Big Apple!

There are so many high points in my life, most of them centered around music. When my memory is clicking I quickly realize I’m one of the luckiest people I know! So much good has happened to me, right up to this very day. The bright, exciting moments are in the past, yet I am blessed beyond belief, living on this island with Betty Johnson. You know the feeling… “Damn, i don’t deserve this, but by god I’ll take it!” That’s me, every day.

Steve Hulse

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