I grew up to the sounds of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and of course Louis Armstrong on reel to reel tapes my father played in his bulky portable player after long days at work and on weekends. His collection of 78s were his pride and joy, only since my mother was a stickler for tidiness they had to be stored in the garage until she decided to tidy that up one day. Shorty after the disappearance of those records and dad’s jazz-filled autograph book, my parents divorced. My mom always said Billie was dad’s number one love.
I signed up for the school orchestra in 4th grade and my father took me to the music shop to buy a trumpet. I picked out a ratty old cornet in a frayed tweed case. “Just like Satchmo!” I showed my dad with glee. Even at that young age I could see some instruments possessed more soul than others. My father, however, has always been an ultimately practical man and while he appreciates soul and even got a kick of my attraction to the lovely old coronet, he picked out a shiny new trumpet in a case the color of over-boiled peas.
The valves of my trumpet were assiduously oiled for three years until 7th grade came around and I moved up to RJ Fisher Jr. High School. The orchestra also doubled as a marching band, a gig I had a tough time imagining to handle, as the uniforms were beyond square, like the music. Nevertheless, after weeks of deliberation, I announced myself in the music room with the pea-green trumpet case in hand.
The old bitter music teacher seemed all too happy to inform me there were already too many trumpet players enrolled, although there was a tuba position open. The idea of playing such a ridiculous instrument actually appealed to me for a moment, especially when I thought how much my mother and neighbors would appreciate my practicing. Yet after one rehearsal blowing bass lines, I resigned from music to pursue more engaging activities like smoking dope and stealing bicycles, while my trumpet found a spot in the back of my closet, where it stayed until each New Years Eve when I’d blast the devil out of it at midnight until I was out of breath. I wouldn’t touch an instrument again for five years, when I walked into the same music shop my father had taken me to and bought a harmonica.
Dad’s jazz became hoary stuff about the time my voice began to change. My big brother became my next musical influence. He had an extensive record collection, which of course I was not allowed to touch. Each finger print-free album was meticulously stored in plastic sleeves and in alphabetical order, by year of release. His eclectic collection exposed me to some of the coolest rock music to come out of the 1960s and early 70s. To help keep me away from his collection, he would flip through 50-cent record bins and buy me Beatles, Jethro Tull and Humble Pie records, which I accompanied on air guitar in front of the mirror.
Blues wasn’t my dad’s bag, yet he dug it enough to take me to what would be a defining moment in my life – a mini Blues festival featuring Willie Dixon, who I had never heard of. Our plan was to catch Lightin’ Hopkins, who I had discovered in my friend’s hippie parent’s record collection, and my dad had known about because he was acquainted with Lightnin’s record producer, but when we got to the gate, there was a sign informing us Lightnin had died. He was replaced with John Hammond, who didn’t really do it for me, despite his brilliant harmonica playing, but when Willie Dixon came out I was floored. I couldn’t stop dancing. Muddy Waters came out for an encore performance of “Got My Mojo Working” and right then and there I knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life. As the mighty Louis Myers would tell me years later in Chicago, “When the blues bites you it don’t let go!”
One way I stayed connected to my father while I was living in Chicago was by going to hear the great tenor player Johnny Griffin when he rolled into his hometown for his annual birthday visit from the Netherlands. Griffin was a buddy to fellow west coast tenor, Chuck Travis, who was one of my dad’s best friends. And when the Artie Shaw or Basie band was in town I’d go to the show for my dad and myself.
It’s much more difficult staying musically connected with my father in such a way these days in Tbilisi. For one thing, there are too few jazz pioneers alive and moreover, Georgia is way too far off the beaten path of any tour circuit for some hot jazz musician to drop by and dazzle us with their groove. So when I’m in a sentimental mood, I put Johnny Hodges in my player, close my eyes and as the introduction to Jeep’s Blues rolls over me, I watch two reel-to-reel tapes spinning in a portable player, bar after swinging bar.