When I was 12 and going into junior high, dad talked me into playing trumpet.
He was always pushing me to be more musical. Singing gospel was his greatest passion and it was inconceivable to him that I might not go down a similar path.
He would sing in the church choir during each of the week’s three services. He sang bass. He had a strong, pleasant voice. In his free time, he participated in a group that recorded Baptist hymns and sent cassette tapes out to churches and missionaries all over the world. He tried to fill every day with singing.
I was pressured from an early age to be a choir person, even though this didn’t make a lot of sense given my nature. Too anxious, too shy. During all of the years I spent in youth choir, my voice remained tremulous, too quiet to hear. Visually, stuffed in a scratchy robe, I was in a constant state of panic. My nerves felt cacophonous in the stage lights and the rooms with too many people.
Dad only listened to one non-Christian music group at that time: the jaunty trumpet stylings of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. It was constantly playing in the house. My childhood sounded like a weird hybrid of 1970s game show and low-energy protestant church.
I mention Herb Alpert because, as it became more apparent that the choir experiment was failing, dad thought maybe playing in the school band would be just the thing for me. That would be my way of connecting with music. And the instrument he liked most was trumpet.
So, one day, late summer, we went to a music shop and bought a trumpet and on the way home we listened to his favorite Herb Alpert cassette. He snapped a finger in time with the beat and elbowed me a few times and repeated, “Hear that? Huh? Not bad, right?”
I couldn’t engage with the sound. It didn’t do anything for me. I felt guilty. It made dad so happy. I politely listened.
That year, 7th grade, I started band.
Playing trumpet came more easily to me than singing. Threading a needle of breath through the instrument and matching the sound it made with the sound of the other players around me, my mind liked the challenge. There was a mental game to it that held my attention.
At least for me, playing trumpet was really about concentration. It was about training my mind to settle itself into an arrangement of consistent, repeatable memory patterns. It was solitary, at least in the way I engaged with it, and the fact that I could hide in a group while doing it just added to the pleasure.
That’s not to say I was any good. I was mediocre. But I enjoyed the interplay between the mental effort and the resulting sounds, so I plowed through a lot of years in band, until graduating high school.
I was too restless to ever develop any real talent. The way I went about it, band wasn’t a creative endeavor, it was a puzzle made of sound, so I never cared much about putting the long hours into practice. I would work on a piece of music, feel out out the aural silhouettes and then I would get bored. I constantly needed new puzzles. Instead of working on assigned pieces, I’d dig out old music books, play material that looked interesting, get distracted, keep shifting around.
The trumpet sound itself started to get old after awhile, so eventually I switched to other instruments, all borrowed from the school supply. My embouchure, having developed for trumpet, could only handle other brass instruments. Switching became a habit. I played baritone for a year or two, French horn, tuba.
I could never excel at French horn, it was too technically difficult to play. The line of air you have to push through a French horn was too fragile and I could never sustain it properly. The sounds I made had a green pallor.
I enjoyed the sonorous impasto of the baritone, that was probably my favorite instrument. That’s the instrument I would take to regional competitions, just because it felt fancier than a trumpet. I thought it was more show off-y. I never did well at competitions, though. I never practiced enough and the anxiety would wreck me in the days leading up to an event. During a performance before judges, my breath would get jerky and I couldn’t hold the notes steady. I would mutter curse words and nervously laugh out of context. The judges scored accordingly.
I played tuba the longest, during most of high school, because the band room had a sousaphone- the curvy, conveniently wearable tuba. With that quantity of brass encasing me and the huge bell that I could hide my face behind, it felt like a giant, protective turtle shell. Tuba is a great instrument for the nervous kids.
One year, for our band fundraiser, we were going to sell summer sausages door-to-door. I fucking hated the annual fundraisers with a passion. And this one seemed even more absurd than usual. There was zero chance I was walking up to strangers with a box of horrible, over-priced sausages.
In the band room, during the first week of sales, the fundraiser company left out a display table that had the various forms you needed to fill out in order to participate, as well an artfully arranged box showcasing the different sausages that were for sale.
Every day that week, I hid the sausages in my sousaphone. This is what my teenage rebellion looked like. It was childish and unimaginative. But that’s what I did. Sausages in the sousaphone.
The first day I did this, the band director pulled his hair out trying to find the missing product. Eventually, when he noticed the students around me laughing, he found them in my instrument. I acted surprised and said it was a frame job. I looked around at my band mates and shook my head, disappointed.
Every day after that when I did the exact same thing, the band director would go straight to me, upturn my sousaphone and shake out the sausages. By the end of the week I’d tallied up a fair amount of detention.
It was a pointless gesture, I just didn’t know what else to do. I was rejecting the fundraiser. This seemed like my only option, really. At the time. Looking back, it’s hard to understand most of what I was thinking back then.
Anyway, that was my band life. I only practiced music unrelated to the class and I switched instruments on a whim and I was never very good. This was my inept, circuitous way of being musical. Dad lost hope. He stopped talking to me about music a few years into the band experiment.
The only good thing to come out of it was an interest in jazz. The band director was a talented jazz musician and he encouraged students to engage with that sound.
He noticed the Herb Alpert tapes that dad had stashed in my trumpet case and asked if I liked it. I said “No.” He did encourage me to keep listening to Mr. Alpert- he said his sounds were clean and technically precise and balanced. I could learn from it.
But, the director would often hand-pick tapes for particular students, depending on their preferred instruments, and for me he chose Dizzy Gillespie.
Dizzy Gillespie blew my fucking mind. My sense of self was pleasantly disordered and re-arranged as I listened to Gillespie. I connected with the sound and, over time, with music from the various artists Gillespie collaborated with.
I grew up in a very strict, religious home. The only music I had ever been exposed to was gospel and the generic non-sound of contemporary Christian. Until the age of 12, music had always struck me as being a numbing obligation.
The first piece of music that shocked me was Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker banging out A Night in Tunisia. I was confused. I was curious. I wanted to know what the fuck was happening here. The fact that this sound was even possible, it took me years to get over that initial shock. The loping piano at the beginning, the metallic perforations from Gillespie’s trumpet, Charlie Parker doing mathematical hypnosis. I wasn’t able to listen to a lot of different material at that time; Night in Tunisia was too intense. It was all I needed.
That was how it went, the music. I often stayed with a single piece for years, playing one song on a particular cassette over and over, hoping that at some point I would feel like I had fully absorbed the sound. That was kind of the hook for me, what pulled me in: feeling out those depths of sound, always knowing in a sick way that I was missing so much of what was there. I was less of a music aficionado and more of a sensory completionist.
And yet, jazz was the ocean. It was inexhaustible. I’d get depressed dwelling on the complexity of music and my failings as a listener.
I pushed ahead, though. I played a song over and over and eventually the tape would break. I would replace it with an identical tape and do it all over again.
It started with A Night in Tunisia. That, daily, for two years or so. The band director really pushed a piece called Manteca, but it was too rich of a sound for me. I couldn’t comprehend how all of those notes went together. But he kept recommending it.
One day it clicked and that’s all I could think about for a long time. I played it for hours every day. I lost sleep over it. I annoyed people with my endless rambling about the intensity of that song and how baffling it was that such a thing was even possible. I initially preferred the 1947 version by the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra, featuring Chano Pozo, but I slowly bonded with different iterations over time.
In college, the intensity of my listening habits eased up to some extent (i.e. I started drinking) and I could finally begin exploring other musicians. Alcohol broke me down a little bit and shifted my tendencies, but that wasn’t such a terrible thing. I needed the breakage. A healthier breakage would have been nice.
Freshman year, I came across the Throwing Muses album House Tornado and it blew my fucking mind. Walking in the Dark, in particular. I listened to it repeatedly. I had questions. What’s going on? What’s happening? And so on.
New avenues were pursued. Cassette Tapes were broken. CDs were played thin and replaced with identical copies that were played thin and replaced. It’s always a trip. Every piece of music that I spend time with feels baroque and strange and I’m lucky if I absorb one of percent of what I hear. There’s always more there than my unreliable mind can sort through.
I still listen, more variety than ever. Mostly it’s not as intense. I’m a casual. A magpie. My mind keeps changing and my music habits change with it and it’s hard to understand where anything is headed.
Those are the memories, anyway. That’s what today, writing this, has brought to mind, those memories. Those school band years and the sounds at home. Herb Alpert playing throughout the house and dad blissfully tapping his feet and I’m in my room, lights off, windows blacked out with tin foil, headphones exhaling Manteca like an incense.
That time was sort of a microcosm of how my life tended to work out. Pressure to be one way. The rejection of that pressure bringing me to a more inward place, where I discovered lost paths that I could stumble through as an alternate way of connecting with art.
Classic teenager stuff, really. Rejection of one’s surroundings. The like poles of self and expectation pushing apart like magnets.
That’s how it goes. You have to disconnect to connect.
I feel compelled to report: as I began to write this, I revisited Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.
It’s clean, jocose, a bright sound. I can’t get it out of my head. I no longer have any cassettes to break or CDs to play thin. Everything is online now, in the aether. It’s hard to see where anything is headed.
Goodbye for now.